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The Pattern of Christ

January 3, 2013

“The Pattern of Christ” Luke 2:41-52 and Colossians 3:12-17 © 12/30/12 Christmas 1C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

No one but his parents knew where he really came from, that he was not of this earth. Not even his sisters and brothers knew the truth. He never used his powers in public. When the board his father sawed was too short for the job, the boy had lengthened it by telekinesis, but that remained a secret. One day he had molded some clay birds and, not content to play with them as toys, decided to give them life. The only thing that made people wonder about him was his extraordinary grasp of the deepest spiritual concepts and his general knowledge of the world. Those who sought to teach him were baffled.

No, this isn’t the plot from some cheesy, B-quality sci-fi series. With just a couple of updates in language, it’s the portrait of Jesus as a child from an ancient work called an “infancy gospel.” People curious about what our Lord was like from birth to age twelve decided to do some rather creative writing, which we may easily dismiss with whatever term we choose, as long as it means “false.”

 

We might like to know about the childhood of Jesus, too. We’re curious people, and we don’t care for gaps in our knowledge. But there’s nothing specific in the Bible except a couple of stories. Matthew tells us our Lord lived in Egypt for a time, until the threat from Herod had passed. Luke relates how he was presented at the Temple as an infant, and then there’s a blank until the tantalizing little story we heard this morning. Still, from it I think we can say one thing with certainty: Jesus was a normal Jewish kid.

But what would that mean? My Greek professor at the University of Georgia thought Jesus “learned Greek at Mary’s knee.” Very unlikely. I have no doubt Jesus had some Greek, the business language of the day, but he picked it up later on in his teens, as he followed the trade learned from Joseph. Instead of languages, his education would more likely be that described by the Jewish philosopher Philo: “Jews, from their very swaddling clothes, are taught by parents, teachers, and those who bring them up, even before instruction in the sacred laws and unwritten customs, to believe in one God, the Father and creator of the world.” So during his early years, Jesus learned what other faithful Jews learned. He was taught to consider himself a son of God. Maybe Luke’s story is in part about how Jesus began to become aware of himself in some unique sense as the Son of God.

Before that twelfth birthday marker, though, Jesus would have gone to an elementary school called a Bet-ha-sefer, or House of the Book. He learned to read and write by recitation of the first five books of the Bible. Then he would have gone to a middle school, called a Bet-ha-Midrashim, or House of Study, in the local synagogue. That would have been every Saturday afternoon.

His main place of learning, though, would have been in the home. And Luke pictures Mary and Joseph as well-suited to the task, since they were both extremely devoted to God. Both of them went to Passover in Jerusalem every year, though the requirement was only that Jewish men living within fifteen miles of Jerusalem do that. Nazareth was considerably farther away than fifteen miles, and with no cars, trains or planes, the journey was long. You had to want badly to go.

On his twelfth birthday, Jesus went with his parents. It was a big year. When he turned twelve, a Jewish boy came of age through the bar-mitzvah ceremony. He was then an adult as far as the Jewish law was concerned.

Jesus ended up in the Temple, at the meeting of the Jewish council. Contrary to some paintings and pictures you may have seen, the boy Jesus was not preaching to the rabbis and scribes. Instead, he and they were engaged in a lively Q&A. He listened and was taught. The teachers were amazed at his understanding, but Jesus was not presuming to teach them.

Mary and Joseph had been gone from Jerusalem a whole day before they realized Jesus wasn’t with their group. We might wonder what kind of parents don’t know where their son is. But we have to remember the custom of the day. The women and younger children set out before the men, since typically the women traveled more slowly. The men and older boys caught up at nightfall. Probably Mary thought Jesus was with Joseph and vice-versa. Or maybe he was with some relatives in the group. With no cell phones to keep in touch, they couldn’t know for sure.

But despite the uncertainty, they didn’t worry. That is, not until they set up camp and Jesus was nowhere to be found. Can’t you imagine their anxiety growing as they searched frantically first through the tents, then back in Jerusalem? They look everywhere, and when they finally find him, Jesus wonders why they didn’t come to the Temple first.

It’s a puzzling question he asks: “Didn’t you know I must be in my Father’s house?” The emphasis shifts from his parents’ concern to the weighty matter of his growing sense of mission and identity.

There are themes introduced in this text that will be some of the governing ones of Jesus’ life and ministry. We can even catch here a foreshadowing of a great Passover at the end of Luke when Jesus entered the Temple and there followed events that resulted in his being lost to his people for another three days.

The first theme here is Jesus’ sense that he has another allegiance. The One to whom he is primarily and ultimately related is God. He has an intimacy with God that is unprecedented. Jesus was not the first to call God “Father,” of course. But there is a level of affection in the relationship that is not there in the common religious speech of the day. In fact, quite often people would qualify the term with “in heaven” or not use it at all. They would say instead “the Merciful One” or “the Word” or “the Truth.”

Jesus went beyond what he had learned from his education in the synagogue and home. He took the simple childish cry of “abba,” a baby’s first word, and applied it without any inhibition to God. The one who uses the term is approaching God with great familiarity. To the ear of his contemporaries, Jesus’ usage would have been improper and inappropriate. But for our Lord, calling God “abba” was natural, sincere, and simple. His relationship with God had a freshness and spontaneity about it no one had seen before. He saw God not as a distant ruler but as One who is intimately close.

Yet this intimacy with God does not mean Jesus did not respect and revere God. When our Lord calls God “Abba, Father,” he’s thinking also of the subjection to a father’s authority that was common in that day. Jesus submitted himself to the will of his Father and made accomplishment of the Father’s work his goal in life. The Son follows the Father. That’s the background of Jesus’ saying to Mary and Joseph. “I had to be in my Father’s house.” The things of his Father took priority. That’s another theme we’ll see over and over. Jesus had a sense of mission. The Greek of the text conveys a driving sense, an urgency about the work. Later on, Jesus will set his face to go to Jerusalem. He is compelled, propelled; a sense of urgency governs him that he cannot shake.

Luke emphasizes this time and again as he tells about Jesus’ ministry. “I must preach the kingdom of God….” “I must go on my way today and tomorrow” toward Jerusalem. “The Son of Man must suffer many things…and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer and enter into his glory?”

So, then, Jesus had a strong sense of identity as God’s Son, as well as certainty about his mission. Given such a holy calling, we might expect he would separate himself from the world and its sin. That way he would not be exposed to temptation or turned aside by mundane concerns. But turning away is exactly what he didn’t do. “He went down to Nazareth and was obedient to his parents,” says Luke. Jesus’ relationship with God didn’t make him haughty or lead him to separation. Instead, it plunged him into the middle of life and led him to take responsibilities with work and family with great seriousness. He is “God with us.”

Through the years, Christianity has not always understood or practiced that kind of involved holiness. Some have gone to the desert to live alone. Others have taught that pleasure is sinful or that only priests and ministers are called by God in their work. For example, Thomas á Kempis, in his famous Imitation of Christ, said that to imitate Jesus one had to withdraw from public life.

Jesus, on the other hand, found his holiness and his relationship with God in everyday human relationships and activities. He was no strange eccentric, off-center, no troubled and odd loner. In fact, he was the only human being who has been right on center of what it means to be human.

Our Confession of 1967 is right: “In Jesus of Nazareth, true humanity was realized once for all. Jesus, a Palestinian Jew, lived among his own people and shared their needs, temptations, joys, and sorrows.” Jesus lived and worked among people who were held in disdain by the ones who thought themselves righteous. He learned what it means to obey through the things he suffered. And in doing so, he became the source of salvation for all who obey him.

There are three themes, then, that governed Jesus’ life. We can see them in his life even at twelve. He had a special relationship with God. He had a sense of mission. And he was involved in human life as an expression of holiness. Those three themes are a pattern for us as well. Jesus is to be imitated by us as the model of humanity. To be human, truly human, is to live like Jesus.

And that means certainly to be claimed by the will of God and by our identity as God’s own, in every situation in life. It is to move toward a holy goal and at the direction of the Spirit. It is to have the reign of God as the vision toward which we live. Being claimed by God as Jesus was is a lifestyle, an everyday commitment in our relationships, our work, our school, our play, as well as our worship, our devotion, and our giving. And if we take the text from Colossians seriously, we realize the difficulty of doing the will of God, being committed to it in a practical, every moment way. Who can easily bear with the person who irritates the fire out of you? Or forgive the offender who did you wrong, perhaps with very hurtful consequences? Or let peace instead of our heated passions rule? Who is willing truly to listen to the teaching of a sister or brother in faith and be gracious when admonished? And in this world where we always want more and things seldom seem right, who is truly thankful for what we have and are? If we do everything in the name of our Lord Jesus, we are going to be challenged with some difficult, but ultimately rewarding, tasks.

John Calvin summarizes well: “God…has in Christ stamped for us the likeness to which he would have us conform…. Christ, through whom we return into favor with God, has been set before us as an example whose pattern we ought to express in our life.”

How can we, by the grace of God, express the “pattern” of Christ in our lives? We can start by asking ourselves some questions: What is my relationship to God? What am I here for? How do I fulfill the will of God in my life? Where and how do I seek to express my faith? Am I involved in the life of the world as Jesus was?

Those are pretty important questions for any time. But here at the end of one year and the beginning of another, they seem especially urgent and timely. Let them set the agenda for each and all of us as we greet 2013.

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