The Redemption of Childhood

Terry Rowlett, Mary & Child, c. 1999

First Sunday after Christmas

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26

Psalm 148

Colossians 3:12-17

Luke 2:41-52

Jesus grew up quick. The angels (Luke 2:14) and prophets (2:28-32, 38) have hardly had time to catch their breath after singing the praises of the newborn, and suddenly Jesus is asserting his independence from his earthly parents and demonstrating his spiritual insight to the temple priests (Luke 2:41-52). Anyone who’s paid much attention in Sunday School has had cause to wonder why we hear almost nothing about Jesus’ childhood. 

Luke’s gospel gives us glimpses of Jesus’ life as if we were his great-aunt Elizabeth, swinging by to pinch his cheeks once when he’s 12 (2:42) and another time when he’s 29 (3:23). Indeed the stories Luke tells us occurred right at the time of major milestones in the life of second temple Judaism; a bar mitzva happened at 13, and the age of readiness for the priesthood was 30. But rather than lead us to exclaim about how time flies, our texts for this week offer hints of how we might contemplate the mystery of Jesus’ childhood, and what it might mean for us that our God became not just a man or a baby, but also a child. 

Our psalm calls forth praise not just from all creation (148:1,3,4-10), but especially from the LORD’s household, “the people of Israel who are close to him” (148:14).  And the description has a familial ring, “young men and women alike, old and young together!” (148:12). There is no age whose mouth God’s praise cannot reach. 

We are told that Samuel grows “both in stature and in favor with the LORD and with the people” (I Samuel 2:20). Samuel’s mother makes him a little robe and brings it to him in the temple each year (I Samuel 2:19), resizing it to fit his growth. Picturing this domestic ritual, we remember that a child’s body is a surefire but irregular way of telling time. The growth of childhood is not linear. It comes in fits and starts. The need to clean out the closets and go up a size is sometimes incremental and sometimes pubescent. 

I know that we are to become children of God (Phil 2:14), but too often I imagine myself like Luke’s Jesus, a child of God with no childhood. I expect from myself a change from sinful to spotless with no awkward moments of growth in between. I want good things and I want them all at once. Whether I admit it or not, I imagine that crystalline, preternatural growth is possible, and I am ruthlessly intolerant of shortcomings in myself and in my family and friends. 

Against these pretentions, Paul tells the Colossians that what is fitting (3:12, 14) for Christians is every imaginable kind of forbearance. They are to bear with one another (3:13) in “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (3:12). They are to not deal harshly with one another, but instead recognize one another’s limitations charitably, as if seeing each other as children, just as Paul views the Galatians (Gal 4:19, 27, 31), and the Ephesians (Eph 5:1, 8), and the Philippians (Phil 2:14).  

Our baptism brings us into God’s family. But having become God’s children, our childhood has only begun.  How are we to be patient with ourselves and one another? How do we learn not to scorn the foolish and gangly and halting ways we mature into grace? 

We would do well to follow the example of Mary who meditates on Jesus’ childhood (Luke 2:51-52). We may not know whether the boy Jesus ever built clay birds or cursed snakes as the pseudepigraphal writings tell us, but the truth is that we don’t have to. The fact that Jesus was a child says all that it needs to. 

Saint Gregory of Nazianzus meditates on Jesus’ growth: “He was wrapped in swaddling bands, but at the Resurrection he unloosed the swaddling bands of the grave. He hungered—yet he fed thousands. He was tired—yet he is the rest of the weary and the burdened (Third Theological Oration).” He babbled and grasped after language—yet is the Word of God. He stumbled and struggled to sit up and walk—yet is the principle of all creation. 

Our LORD shunned not the virgin’s womb, nor the cross and its shame. Neither did Christ shun human childhood. On this first Sunday of Christmas, let us remember that our LORD entered into and redeemed this part of our frailty too. The very Wisdom of God “grew in stature and wisdom” (Luke 2:52). Let us not be too proud to grow slowly as children of God, but instead bear with ourselves and with another in love. Let us not think for a moment that we make ourselves grow, but instead rejoice that Christ became part of the human family that we might become part of the family of God. 

God’s Magnificent Love

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:39-55

As encounters go, the one described in our reading from Luke’s gospel today is pretty far under the radar, not the sort of event that the important people of the first century would have been angling for an invitation to attend. Luke invites us to a family reunion of sorts, a joyful coming together of two—really four—cousins, spurred on by some big and exciting and in some ways terrifying goings on in their lives. But just because, for any number of reasons, the meeting that Luke describes in the hill country of Judea might have gone unnoticed in the eyes of the world’s major power players,  that doesn’t mean it wasn’t consequential. Just because the Caesar Augustuses and the Herods of the world weren’t paying attention to what was going on just outside Jerusalem on that day doesn’t mean it wasn’t important, even world-altering. Because within that encounter, within the embrace and the greeting and the time spent together, we don’t just see some family members sharing how they feel about each other. We witness the power and the glory, the magnificence of God’s love, breaking into the world in ways that would change everything.

Let’s talk briefly about who was involved in this meeting. First, the women. Elizabeth and Mary. Two women from the same family. Two women who occupy a central role in the story that God is telling here at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. Two women who, for so many reasons, would have been overlooked by so many in their world. Elizabeth, the wife of a priest, is older. Up until very recently, she and her husband Zechariah had borne the burden of childlessness, a stigma that would have been noticeable in every sympathetic, pitying look they got from their neighbors, a reality that would have weighed heavily on them whenever they thought about the future. But all that had changed when Zechariah met an angel in the temple and heard the news that he was going to be a father, that Elizabeth would bear a son, and that their child had an important part to play in the drama of God and his people.

Then there is Mary, a young woman, an unmarried virgin with her whole life ahead of her. Like Elizabeth, she is pregnant. And she cannot help but be fearful, or at least anxious, at the thought of what this baby in her belly means. Undoubtedly, her angelic visit was followed up by some difficult conversations with her family about her pregnancy. If the suspicious glances and gossipy whispers from her fellow Nazarenes haven’t started yet, she knows they’re coming. And then there is the matter of Joseph. Like Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah, who has been rendered mute because of his doubt, Joseph, Mary’s fiancee, isn’t a part of this scene that unfolds in Luke 1. It could be that he just stayed behind in Nazareth to work. It’s just as likely that he’s wrestling with some serious doubts and questions of his own, that he’s still in the midst of the process that the gospel of Matthew describes, of deliberating how to divorce Mary quietly, how to end the engagement without too much of a scandal, leaving Mary to face an uncertain future alone. Joseph will ultimately come around, but those days or weeks when Mary’s life with Joseph hung in the balance had to be overwhelming.

Maybe this is why Mary hurries to Elizabeth, a woman who had perhaps been equal parts rock to lean on and example to learn from as Mary had grown toward adulthood. Maybe Mary knows that, even in the midst of this scary time, this moment when Mary is vulnerable in the face of so many possibilities both spoken and unspoken, Elizabeth is someone who will rejoice with her. And of course, she’s right. The greeting that Elizabeth gives Mary affirms God’s gracious work and Mary’s place in it. She calls Mary the mother of my Lord. She pronounces her blessing on her young cousin, inviting Mary into her home and also into her wonder at all that God was doing. 

But Elizabeth isn’t the only one who recognizes the amazing way that God is working in Mary’s life. As Mary draws close and greets her cousin, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb, the baby who will, in just a few months, be named John, and who, years later will fulfill his role as the messenger and forerunner of the Christ, leaps for joy. Even as a pre-born child, John is already fulfilling the purpose that God has named for him. He is already heralding the coming of the Lord, already energetically announcing the kingdom, jumping in the womb as if he is shaking off the chains of the old order and welcoming the new reality that the child in Mary’s womb even now, in the earliest stages of his life, is already embodying. It is a remarkable scene. This gathering of two women and their two unborn children, coming together in joyful anticipation and loving celebration, is as consequential a meeting, and as profound an inbreaking of God’s grace, as we are likely to find anywhere in Scripture or elsewhere.

If the events described by Luke, the miraculous response of Elizabeth’s pre-born child, and the words that pass between Elizabeth and Mary hint at the weighty significance of this moment and at all that God is doing in their lives and in this world, the song that Mary sings at the close of this passage makes the case even more clearly. This emphatic, prophetic proclamation is among the most stirring and beautiful testaments to the overwhelming power of God’s love that we find anywhere in Scripture. As she sings, Mary takes her place among the messengers of God’s kingdom from Miriam and Hannah to Isaiah and Malachi, the prophets and prophetesses who were prompted by the Spirit of God to call their people to repent and rejoice, the men and women who gave voice to renewed perspectives and reconfigured imaginations concerning all that God was capable of doing and all that God was willing to do for the people he loved. 

Mary opens her song by glorifying the Lord for his attitude and his attention toward her and toward all his children. She sings of the way that God is mindful even of a humble servant like herself. She exults in his mercy that extends throughout the generations to all who fear him. This is a picture of God as one who tenderly watches over his children. It’s a picture of a God who is warmly affectionate and lavishly generous toward those he loves, a God who doesn’t withhold his concern for those in his care. But this is not a passive love. Just as quickly, Mary shifts her attention to what God has done and what God continues to do. The verbs that we see in verses 51-55 are strong and bracing. God has performed mighty deeds. He has scattered the proud. He has brought down rulers from their thrones. He has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things. He has sent the rich away empty. This is the work of a creative God, remaking a broken and unjust world in his image, with a righteous energy and a surgical focus, stripping away everything that stands in the way of his coming Kingdom and elevating everything that points toward the abundant life he holds out for his children. This is the work of a faithful God, one who has been keeping his promises since the beginning of time and who is not about to stop now. 

The God whom Mary sings about is one with both the power and the will to do what he says: to lift up those who are downtrodden while bringing the proud to their knees; to give voice to the voiceless while silencing the oppressor. The picture of love that is at the heart of Mary’s song here is both tender and fierce. Perhaps fittingly, the closest analogue we have for what Mary is describing is the love of a mother for her child. There are few places that a mother will not go, few things she will not do, to uphold the love she has for her child. This is something that Mary would understand even at this early stage, and something she would come to understand in crucial, heartbreaking ways, in the years to come. When she held her baby in the Bethlehem night, shielding him from the chill in the stable. When she heard about Herod’s decree, targeting her infant son, and fled with Joseph and their baby to Egypt. When she heard the contempt of the Scribes and Pharisees as they judged her grown son’s every move. And of course, when she stood at the foot of the cross and saw the blood flowing down his face.

In these moments, and in so many countless others, the love that Mary had for her child would have been manifest in a powerful urge to protect him. Sometimes she could. But of course, at other times, in other battles, even the most loving mother can’t win. But she will persist. And what makes such a love so powerful, so enormously significant, is that, in its own way, it mirrors the love of a compassionate and merciful God. This is the love that gives shape and power to this song, this Magnificat, sung by a young woman who was carrying in her own womb the incarnate Son of God, who became human so that he might redeem us, who took on the very nature of a servant so that he might be our king. This is such a powerful mystery. This is such a marvelous story. This is such a magnificent love.

Good News?

Third Sunday of Advent

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Phil 4:4-8

Luke 3:7-18

“You brood of vipers!”  If you are someone who preaches or in other ways leads a church community, I’m sure you have been tempted to begin a sermon or a church meeting with this line.  So satisfying; so true; probably not helpful; guaranteed to cause more problems than it solves.  It does, however, seem to work for John the Baptist.  We read in this Sunday’s gospel that John’s warning of God’s immanent judgement provokes all types of people to ask, “What then should we do?”  John offers his hearers a variety of concrete ways of demonstrating their repentance.  Luke concludes this passage by calling John’s message “good news.”  

With all the imagery of chopping down of unfruitful trees, separating wheat from chaff, and unquenchable fire, one might well be excused for thinking, “Where is the good news in this?”  The first part of the answer to this quite reasonable question lies in the closing verses of this passage when John promises that someone greater than he is soon to come.  The one who is coming is both more powerful than John; of much higher status; and will baptize with the Spirit and fire. John’s expectations for this person are clear.  This coming one will bring the judgment of God that John has been warning will come.  This judgment will be clear, decisive, and we should do what we can to repent and prepare.  Knowing this in advance is good news. 

Luke has already made it clear to us that Jesus is the coming one whom John anticipates.  This is also good news.  This good news, however, raises some issues for John.  Fairly quickly after our gospel reading ends, we learn that Herod imprisons John.  Herod will later order John’s murder.  While he is in prison, it becomes clear that John is keeping tabs on Jesus.  He receives regular updates on what Jesus is doing and saying.  It becomes evident that what John hears causes some level of frustration. By the time we reach Luke 7:18 John sends messengers to Jesus asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  Clearly, Jesus is not acting the way John expected.  There seems to be little chopping, little winnowing, and no fire.  Jesus is not doing any of the things John anticipated.

Instead of answering John’s question directly, Jesus points to the things he is doing: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news proclaimed to them” (7:22).  Although these are not the activities John anticipated, they do resonate with the reading from Zephaniah 3, 

“I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you. . .”

Jesus’ words and deeds point to the arrival of God’s redemption of Israel. Jesus has come to incarnate the reign of God, to display to all of us what God’s deepest longings for us might look like. No doubt, there is room within that time for God’s judgment. Even so Jesus’ accounts of God’s rule would indicate that God’s judgment is designed less to punish us than it is to restore us and render us fit to live as citizens of God’s reign.

This is not the first time that Jesus has failed to meet the expectations of his Jewish contemporaries. Neither will it be the last time. The challenge that he lays before John the Baptist and before us is this:  will we change our expectations to conform to Jesus or will we keep our expectations intact, and fail to recognize who Jesus is? 

Yes, it is true that Jesus did and does meet us where we are.  It is not the case, however, that in meeting us where we are, Jesus will conform himself to our hopes and desires.  Rather, he will invite us to follow him and have our desires transformed and reordered as the Spirit works in us.  I have no doubt this transformation and reordering will be difficult, even painful, at times.  This may be what John means by being baptized with fire. The result of this will render us more truly and deeply ourselves.

By the third Sunday in Advent, the time is getting short.  Jesus is coming, soon.  Will our expectations of him frustrate his working in our lives or will be open to receiving him as he is, even if he does not come as we expect?