The First Sunday after the Epiphany


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O Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers…
Romans 12:1-5
Luke 2:41-52

We are not, says Paul, to think of ourselves more highly than we ought, one of those nice phrases similar to “She is no better than she ought to be”; it all boils down to a somewhat overlooked basic question behind the aphorisms: how well ought we to think of ourselves? Having established this point, we can then try to avoid excess. The Collect takes a slightly different angle by referring to our actions rather than to the thoughts generated by our whole, rather complex selves, when it prays that we should “perceive and know” what things we ought to do.

The Gospel is not much help in trying to solve this problem because it presents us with one of those occasions when the divinity and humanity of Jesus become entangled in the same narrative. Do we not experience a rather uncomfortable feeling that the human Jesus would not have got away with the conduct which the divine Jesus was able to justify? As we can only aspire to behave like Jesus, we are left by the Collect and Epistle with our problem, to which we will have to return in due course.

Luke begins by saying that the parents of Jesus went up to Jerusalem every year for the Passover, a statement which is not easy to accept at face value if the Holy Family lived at Nazareth rather than Bethlehem, as this would have involved more than two weeks of expenditure without income, although Jesus might have gone up for the Passover with his parents in the year of his coming to manhood. Luke still refers to him as “The child Jesus” and the confusion as to his whereabouts on the return journey arises because until he was a man he could either travel with the men or the women. After a day’s travel when the two groups came together to eat, they found that Jesus was not there, at which point normal parental panic set in; they forgot that their child was in some way special or, as we might put it, divine. Instead of thinking: “Remember the angel that we each saw; he is bound to be under God’s protection, let us not worry”, they turned about and went to Jerusalem and, having got there, they again forgot who their son was, the kind of person they had heard he was destined to be, and so it took three days before the penny dropped and they went to the Temple. Mary rebuked Jesus and his reply, not very gracious, was that he must be about his Father’s business. Luke says, in a statement of deep discomfort, that they did not understand his reply but, in one of his favourite phrases, Mary stored all of this up in her heart (cf Circumcision) and they went home and we hear nothing of Jesus for almost two decades.

What are we to make of the reaction of his parents? The obvious answer is that Luke had not worked out the status of Jesus with the same theological precision declared some 400 years later at the Council of Chalcedon (451). According to that doctrine resting on the famous Kenotic phrase of Paul (Philippians 2:5-8), Jesus as a man put his divinity by; Jesus was therefore not supposed to have been more theologically gifted than the next man. He might have been more gifted than his peers because he was inclined towards religious studies but Luke definitely leans towards a Jesus in this story who is behaving in a quasi divine way, displaying learning that astonishes his hearers. That ambivalence would explain the puzzled parental reaction. They had a special child but were not clear in which way he would be special. Luke, with the benefit of hindsight, could look back at the childhood. All they knew was that his birth had been highly irregular but that they had been reassured by divine intervention that it was all for the best. You try to bring up your child properly and when you think that he has misbehaved he claims divine exception!

This story is also important because it underlines Luke’s literary device of situating the centre of his two-volume narrative in The Temple until the final, critical shift to Rome. What were the elders to make of the learning of this boy? Their puzzlement surely pre-figures their reaction to Jesus the man. Here, surely, is a figurative foretaste of what is to come.

As all three Readings are in some way concerned with ‘good conduct’, we should note their antitheses: The Collect gives us the power to perceive and know but calls upon God to give us “The grace and power to fulfil the same”; Paul says that we should not be conformed to this world but should be transformed by the renewing of our minds; and the Gospel shows Jesus to be a listener as well as a teacher.

Which leads us back to our initial problem. One way of expressing our sense of self is that we should perform our own kind of Kenosis, that we should recognise that anything we do that has any merit comes not from ourselves but from God to whom we must offer it back in sacrifice. The good too frequently fall into the trap of attributing what they do to their own virtue, taking credit instead of giving the credit to God. Consequently, contrary to popular fiction, those who do good are in greater danger of falling into sin than those who are obviously wicked.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. Is it possible to read the Gospels with strict adherence to the Chalcedon doctrine?
  2. What are the barriers to establishing a true sense of self?
  3. Why is this story so important to Luke’s narrative?
  4. Contrast the dangers facing the obviously wicked with the obviously good.
  5. What were the elders and Jesus talking about in the Temple?

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