Must!

The text of the sermon, based on Luke 2.41-52, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 2nd Sunday after Christmas Day, January 2, 2022.

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Christmas Day. Only eight days ago. Already seemingly long past. Alas, annual celebrations don’t last.

First, our anticipation. (Commercially, Christmas expectancy, over time, has lengthened with decorations appearing immediately after Halloween. And, personally, for many, in this era of COVID-19, through rolling, roiling periods of lockdowns and distanced learning-and-living, we were ready all year to celebrate!)

Then, the great day arrived. For a moment, we paused. To rejoice, gathering with family and friends. To reverence, joining in worship. To reflect, taking time in solitude and silence.

Then, the moment passed and we, as we must, moved on. For the twelve days of Christmas always compete with the coming new year; often obscuring our observance as we, figuratively and literally, turn the calendar page.

Poor Christmas. Unable to run its course before we return to life’s normality or, in this pandemic era, the new normal.

Nevertheless, on this ninth day of Christmastide, we continue to reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ birth. Oddly, we focus not on his infancy, but his adolescence. Jesus at age twelve in the temple is the only story in the canonical gospel accounts of the “missing years” between his birth and adulthood.

There are other apocryphal stories of Jesus’ childhood, which reveal a decidedly different, magical, mischievous, even malicious image of Jesus. A five-year-old Jesus makes birds out of clay on Sabbath day, violating the prescription against work; then causes bis creations to come to life and fly away, eliminating the evidence![1] An angry Jesus causes the annoying son of the scribe Annas to wither up like a tree and die![2]

I conjecture that these tales reflect recurring themes in the authorized gospel accounts of Jesus challenging the Sabbath restrictions and the scribal interpretations of the law. Nevertheless, aside from the question of their authenticity, they were considered scandalous. So, when the contents of the New Testament were decided, the story of Jesus in the temple was more suitable. A precocious child went missing and was found by his anxious parents. A simple, sentimental, sweet story.

Or is it?

This story marks a shift from Christmas revelations about Jesus proclaimed by others – angels,[3] shepherds,[4] and Simeon and the prophet Anna in the Temple[5] – and Jesus’ self-declaration. His word makes this more than a simple story.

Mary and Joseph, with Jesus, journey to Jerusalem for the annual Passover celebration. Returning to Nazareth, they discover that Jesus is not with them. Frantically, they rush to Jerusalem, finding Jesus in the temple conversing with the teachers of the Law to the amazement of all. Mary chastises Jesus, who replies, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

A provocative question and a powerful declaration of vocation. For when Jesus inaugurated his ministry, he said, “I must proclaim the good news of God, for I was sent for this purpose.”[6] When Jesus revealed his destiny to his disciples, he said, “The Son of Man must suffer, be killed, and on the third day be raised.”[7] Jesus’ understanding of his calling was so clear that he repeated this prediction of his passion, his suffering and death several times.[8]

Jesus in the temple. A sweet story? No. Rather a tale of transition between infancy and ministry.  An adolescent Jesus stands on the threshold of that ministry, saying,“I must be in my Father’s house?”

Today, we stand on the threshold of a new year. Typically, a time to make resolutions about personal growth. In accord with this not-so-sweet story of Jesus in the temple, I ask: What is your “must-statement? What’s mine? What is your declaration of your life’s purpose? Your raison d’être, your reason to be? What’s mine?

Something already known? Or new? Whatever it is, are we clear about what it is? When we look in the mirror each morning, what do we say to ourselves, silently or aloud, that confirms afresh the meaning of our existence? The commitments that we have made and will attempt to honor? The direction in which we will walk that day? The objectives to which we intend our words and deeds to point?

One word of counsel, of caution. Mary and Joseph didn’t understand Jesus. His clarity was, for them, a mystery. And I submit that whenever we are clear about who we are and where we are going, there will be those, at times, near and dear, who will not understand. Clarity, which makes bold the expression of conviction does not always bring comfort. Nevertheless, the Creator, the creation, and life itself beckon us to claim our calling; whether new or anew.

“I must be in my Father’s house.” For 2022, what is your, my “must”? What and where is your, my “Father’s house”?

© 2021 PRA


[1] Infancy Gospel of Thomas 2.3.

[2] Ibid, 3.2.

[3] Matthew 1.18-25; Luke 1.26-35, 2.9-14

[4] Luke 2.15-18

[5] Luke 2.25-33, 36-38

[6] Luke 4.43

[7] Luke 9.22

[8] Luke 17.25, 24.7, 26

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