A sermon on Luke 2:41-52 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 16 February 2020
Fame is a funny thing. Many people who don’t have fame want it. They work for it. They make sacrifices for it. But those who have it often wish they didn’t. Fame gives untold riches to the famous, but often robs them of the things that money can’t buy: privacy, freedom, independence, honesty, love. And the casualties of fame are legendary: ABBA, Princess Diana, Heath Ledger, to name a few. Fame turned them into gods, but stripped them of their humanity, and took from them everything worth living for.
And I believe it is the same for Mary, the mother of Jesus. For Mary is worshipped and adored by hundreds of millions of people. There are towns and villages all over Spain and southern France and Italy where people measure their religion by the strength of their devotion to their local shrine to Mary. It sits upon the highest hill or tallest mountain that stands above the village. Thousands make their annual pilgrimage to the shrine. The biggest day of the year isn’t Christmas or Easter, but the day they bring Mary down and parade her through the street.
A few years ago, I even found this prayer published in the classifieds of the paper.
O most beautiful flower of Mount Carmel, blessed mother of the Son of God, Immaculate Virgin assist me in my necessity. You are my mother, Mother of God, Queen of Heaven and Earth. I humbly beseech you from the bottom of my heart. There are none that can withstand your power. I place this cause in your hands. Amen.
This prayer, it said, must be said for three days and after that the request will be granted. Never known to fail.
But if I give my full attention to Holy Scripture, I read a completely different story. I find in the Bible that Mary was a woman of great faith who was obedient to the will of God. She loved her son and worried about him, but never seemed to fully understand him till he rose from the dead, to discover that the man who called her mum, she had to call him Lord.
Look at the Apostle’s Creed. The sixth and seventh article of the creed say, He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Although it mentions Mary, in the end it’s not about her. It’s about Jesus, God’s only Son, our Lord. He was born of the Virgin Mary. And almost every Bible passage which mentions Mary is really about Jesus.
Today, for example, we’re looking at Luke chapter 2. It recalls a visit that Mary, Joseph and Jesus made to Jerusalem for the Passover when Jesus was twelve years old. It’s the only account we have of Jesus’ childhood, of his life after Mary and Joseph returned to Nazareth from Egypt and before he was baptised by John and began his public ministry.
Every year Joseph and Mary made the trip to Jerusalem where they could share in the Passover, the feast that celebrated the escape of the children of Israel from their slavery in Egypt. During the Passover, they remembered how the angel of judgement sent by God to end the lives of the firstborn sons of Egypt, passed over the homes of the Israelites. Why? Because they painted the frames of their doors with the blood of a lamb that they roasted and ate together. And every year afterwards, the Jews ate the Passover to remember that they had been redeemed, purchased out of slavery by blood.
That’s why Joseph and Mary went to Jerusalem each year and when Jesus was twelve, they took him with them. At twelve, Jesus was still a boy, a child. A child who would have played with his friends in Nazareth. A child who had been taught to read. A child who would have been expected to do his chores and to obey his parents. But at twelve, he was a boy on the verge of becoming a man. A man who would have to learn a trade. A man who would have to learn to take responsibility. A man who would have to take his proper place in the community of God’s chosen people. So at twelve it was the right time for Jesus to make the trip to Jerusalem too.
Of course, it wasn’t just the three of them, Mary, Joseph and Jesus. They travelled among their relations and friends and neighbours from Nazareth. During the trip from Nazareth to Jerusalem, there was safety in numbers. Safety from bandits and wild animals. And it was a community thing too. A festival atmosphere that lasted all the way to Jerusalem, then all the days there during the Passover and then all the way back home. It was a religious feast, pilgrimage, holiday and carnival all rolled into one. And for the children it would have seemed like a week-long sleep over. It must have been normal for parents to go days without seeing the pride and joys.
How else can we explain why it took so long for Mary and Joseph to miss Jesus on the trip home? Are you going to stand up and say that Joseph and Mary were bad parents, that Mary was unfit to be a mother? Because I’m not. It’s not fair for us to project our fears for our children and grandchildren back into a different age, and a different culture where the children didn’t just belong to their own family, but to the whole village.
Verse 44 simply says that they travelled for a day thinking that Jesus was in their company. You would too, if you thought the same. And why shouldn’t they assume that he would be with them? Jesus was just a boy, wasn’t he? Just a child who should do what he was told. A child who should do exactly what he was expected to. A child who had never let them down before.
Two sleepless nights later, wandering around the big city of Jerusalem, Joseph and Mary must have felt like they had aged twenty years. They had been looking for Jesus for three days: one in the camp, one spent travelling back to Jerusalem, and one in the city itself.
When they found him. Of all places, in the temple, sitting among the grown-ups. Jesus was asking them questions and answering theirs. An onlooker might have wondered who was teaching who, but his mother simply wanted to know what right this child had to frighten his parents. She marched up to him and said, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”
She might have expected him to break into tears. She might have expected him to run safe and sound into his mother’s arms. But Jesus just turned and looked at her. It was her son’s eyes that focused on her, but it must have seemed like a stranger was looking through them who said,
Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?
She had thought she had found the child she’d lost, but instead she had found a man. A young man who thought he was right where he should have been. In his Father’s house, doing his Father’s will, sitting with the other men, learning his Father’s Word and teaching his fair share of it too.
By his Father’s house, Jesus meant the temple, the house of God. It was a gentle rebuke to his mother. “Your father and I,” she had said, meaning herself and Joseph. “Your father and I have been looking for you.” Jesus was reminding his mother that what she said wasn’t true. He had been with his Father all along in his Father’s house. It was a shocking thing to say. The Jews believed that God was the Father of Israel. That God had chosen them, rescued them. They belonged to him. He had given them life. He was their Father. And Jesus taught his disciples to call God, “our Father.” But Jesus called him my Father. As if he had a special claim to God that no one else could make.
As the Apostle’s Creed reminds us Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, but he was born of no man. Joseph wasn’t his father. He was his step-father. An important enough role in the life of our Saviour. To be the head of the household in which the Lord would grow up. To guide him as he grew in understanding. To teach him his trade. After all, it was through Joseph that Jesus was legally acknowledged to be heir to the throne of David. Without Joseph there would be no Messiah, no Christ, no anointed chosen king of God’s people. But he was not Jesus’ father. Joseph had been looking for him all over Jerusalem, but he had found Jesus in the temple, in his Father’s house.
And yet Jesus was his mother’s son. Her DNA flowed in his blood. The shape of his face, the colour of his eyes and hair, the sound of her voice were shaped by hers. His earthly life had begun within her. She had given birth to him in pain and labour. She had nourished him from her breast. She had wrapped him and rocked him to sleep. He had learned from her his mother tongue. She would have seen his first steps and heard his first words. She would have made and mended his clothes and soothed his bumps and scrapes. He was her Son, but as she began to learn on that trip to Jerusalem, he was her Lord as well, the Son of the living God, conceived in her womb by the Holy Spirit, sent to earth to complete his rescue mission.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians says,
At the right time God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.
He became like us, born like us, fed like us, raised like us. He became like us, he felt pain like us, he experienced the passage of time like us, he spoke, he cried, he bled like us, so that we might become like him.
For the Passover celebrated a redemption purchased by blood. But it was a poor copy compared to the salvation accomplished by Jesus. We were slaves, not in Egypt, but to sin. We are under the law, and subject to the law, liable to face the penalties imposed by the law. But Jesus has set us free, not by the blood of a lamb painted on a door frame, but by his own precious blood spilt on the frame of the cross. He became like us so that we might become like him, not a prisoner under the law, but a child of God, and an heir to his kingdom, adopted through faith in his Son Jesus.
As I said at the beginning, Luke chapter 2 mentions Mary. As we read it we see her love for her son, we sense her fear for him, we all but feel the slap of his rebuke against her. “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But ultimately, this story isn’t about her. It is about Jesus, the boy who called her mum, the man she had to learn to call her Lord.
That is why I believe that we must love Mary the way she should be loved. Hundreds of millions of people have placed her on a pedestal. To them she is the queen of heaven, the mother who will listen to us when our heavenly father won’t. Like thousands of celebrities after her, she has gained great fame, but at the cost of her humanity. But we need to love the real Mary. The woman chosen by God to be the mother of his Son. The one who raised the boy to become the man who saved the world. We honour her memory, not by worshipping her or by praying to her, but by following her example of faith and like her giving first place in our heart to her son as our Lord.