Grace and peace. Today’s lessons do not focus on the New Year, but continue the themes of Christmas. We are still in the second chapter of Luke, but now in the childhood of Jesus. We have the famous story of the boy Jesus at twelve, in the temple, astounding the scribes and teachers with his understanding and insight.
Centuries earlier, the first lesson is the story of the boy Samuel who was given to the temple by his mother, Hannah. He was trained as a boy for his service in the sacrificial temple. We have here one of his mother’s yearly visits when she brings new clothes for her son. Like Jesus, Samuel at an early age grows in understanding and insight. He eventually becomes the prophet who holds the nation together in a time of national crisis. His role in the history of Israel cannot be overestimated.
The stories are similar in so many ways; it may be the case that the writer of Luke is using I Samuel as a pattern for his own recollection of the boyhood of Jesus. There is the separation from the parents, the involvement in the temple, precocious wisdom and favor in the eyes of God and people, the sense of greatness yet to come.
But there are differences as well in the two accounts which reflect different historical circumstances. Samuel is given to the temple as a sacrificial gift. And that gift is affirmed by the writer of the story. In more ancient times, the sacrifice or offering of children was seen as a sign of deep religious commitment. Perhaps with the sacrifice of his son Isaac by Abraham in Genesis 22, we have an ancient memory of the insight that Isaac and all children need not be sacrificed to placate a God demanding sacrifice. And so, in the temple system of the ancient Hebrew Scriptures, animals were sacrificed for several centuries to fulfill ancient ritual responsibilities. Samuel was trained in this sacrificial temple system. Yet the sense of giving one’s child to God for service in the temple lingers, and is still affirmed in our first lesson this morning.
By the time of Luke (and Luke is one of the later writers of the New Testament), the system of temple sacrifice and ritual is no longer in place. In fact, the temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed. What takes its place is a religion based no longer on placating an angry God through temple acts, but a faith based on wisdom and insight into the nature of God and the way to live our lives well. Jesus is not dedicated to temple service by Mary and Joseph: he wanders off. Notice how the childhood of Jesus is not temple based, but family based. And Luke makes it clear that Jesus remains loyal to his family. In the temple Jesus is not trained in temple ritual. By this time the temple is replaced by local synagogues, places for learning and wisdom. Jesus meets not priests but teachers or rabbis. They don’t kill animals anymore, they discuss things. And children are not brought to the temple as an act of devotion. They are raised as even as difficult teenagers in families.
In that phrase “my Father’s house” we may have a clue to the insight that was important for the wisdom of Jesus from the very beginning. From childhood, Jesus felt close to God. That closeness to God is embedded in the word Abba. The question before the group of scribes listening to Jesus may have been, “how intimate and close is God to us, to the human heart? Does God dwell in a building, a temple, or in the intimate interior of the soul as human beings work out the will of God in the world? It will be awhile, and several chapters of Luke will pass, before we sense the personal, public, religious and political implications of this deep relationship with God. But from the beginning, Luke says Jesus felt deeply close to God.
The shift from sacrifice into wisdom for living is echoed in the Colossians lesson. The robe reference here is to the baptismal garment worn at the baptism of new Christians. But note how the baptismal robe, the clothes of a Christian, are really not made of cloth, but a weaving of the heart. A Christian wears kindness, humility, patience, forgiveness, love, peace, thankfulness, and joy. This is the tapestry of the Christian robe. This is what it means to be baptized. This is the way Christians act in the world.
So today, we continue in this tradition of wisdom. And as a new year begins, we commit ourselves to these principles. And we also are aware not only of Samuel and Jesus as children, but also the children among us. And we might do well to think about childhood.
Certainly our children are a gift. Children are raised in families. That is a good thing, even on those days when we may wonder like Mary and Joseph, whatever is going on with the teenager we thought we knew. Family life matters. It is the crucible out of which our capacities and values are formed. Families also hold together society. And it is good for us to lift up families when we speak of childhood.
Children also belong in community. It is important for us to create a climate of caring for children at St. Johns. For in this community, our children become aware of those who are struggling. They experience friendship. They learn about Jesus and God. They see adults acting out their faith. And they express and share their unique wisdom among us. Children not only say the strangest things. They also say the wisest things. Children’s time in worship is not so much a time to teach children using object lessons, but a time to raise an issue with children and to listen to what they have to say about that, and to shape a conversation with them.
But the community children live in is more public than either family or congregation. These days especially we think about children and their exposure to violence. We’ll need to change some things, so that more children are safe. These days especially we need to think about how our economic and political decisions affect children, schools, teachers, and families. And we are called to do what we can to lift up the importance of childhood and the nurture of wise children. These days especially, we need to become more aware of the children of the world, children exposed to poverty, suffering from unnecessary cruelty, neglect, disease, and transition. The national ELCA has been doing much in this area, from the fair trade items made available to congregations, to its childhood advocacy programs, to its rather massive malaria project.
We are called by Samuel and the boy Jesus to lift up the gift of childhood and to treasure it. But finally, I think, this lesson invites us to lift up not only the gift of childhood to us all, but also the various gifts of specific children. You know, each child has unique gifts, perspective, wisdom, and understanding. No two children are alike. We are called by these lessons today to listen to a particular child who is among us, and to nurture the wisdom, talents, gifts, and insights he or she shares with us. With all our emphasis on urban and shelter issues, we don’t have all that many children at St. Johns. And those we have are our most treasured blessing. Each is unique. We thank God for them, and for Samuel, and for Jesus. And we pray at the dawn of this new year that families flourish, that all congregations nurture their children well, that communities, states, and our nation protect and advance the causes of children, and that we all do what we can together to assist children everywhere.