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Sermon for Epiphany I

by Christopher Esget ~ January 4th, 2010

The Gospel reading is the historic one for the First Sunday after Epiphany: Luke 2.41-52.

In today’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover. When the feast is over, Joseph and Mary begin the journey home, traveling with a large group of their relatives and friends. They imagine that Jesus is with them, probably running along the road with the other young boys while the adults talked about everything they had seen and done in the temple and throughout the great city.

But Jesus is not with them. He is lost. And that is the first application for us today. Sometimes we “lose” Jesus, too; i.e., sometimes we can experience a crisis of faith, where we stop looking to, trusting in, clinging on to the object of our faith – Jesus. Perhaps the most natural prayer for us to pray is in the words of the father with the possessed child: “Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief!” Being a disciple of Jesus doesn’t mean that we never struggle with unbelief, or have doubts. This life in the world and in our sinful flesh is full of challenges and temptations, times when we seem to be losing, or even feel as though we have lost Jesus. There are numerous reasons: we see sins and sinners in the church; we are drawn to this world’s allurements; we become lazy or apathetic; we endure loss of property, reputation, or health; we suffer damaged relationships, sometimes beyond repair. All of these situations can, if we let them, cause us to lose Jesus.

Dangerous also, and Christians are afraid to talk of it, is depression. Some people are prone to it because of body chemistry or temperament; others are driven to it by circumstances in their lives. Manifesting itself in rage, anxiety, or a persistent melancholy, some people feel they are drowning in emptiness. Hope seems blotted out, and faith’s object, Jesus, is obscured. What anxiety, fear, and panic must Mary and Joseph have known, when Jesus was, quite literally, lost from them?

Whether because of our own sins, or through suffering, or prideful apathy, we can lose Jesus. But there is a great lesson to be learned in today’s Gospel. When Mary and Joseph searched for Jesus, He was right where He belonged – in the House of His Father, discussing with the rabbis the Word of God. And that is where we will find Him too, where He has promised to be: in the house of God, the Church, where the Sacraments are given out, and in the Word of God, where He speaks to us.

All of this happens when Jesus is at the age of twelve, which tells us something important about who Jesus is. Last Sunday Immanuel observed the Epiphany, where Jesus was worshipped as God in the flesh by the wise men. Jesus, you see, is both true God, and also true Man. Now at the age of twelve, Jewish boys would particularly begin to leave the society of women and enter the society of man. The rabbis instructed Jewish fathers to be gentle with their boys until age twelve, and then begin to teach him the way of manly living, including strict discipline if necessary. Probably at this point, Joseph would have begun teaching his trade, carpentry, to Jesus. The twelve-year old Jesus was now being treated as a man, and thus went up with Joseph to Jerusalem for Passover.

The point is, a twelve-year old boy begins to do his work. And at twelve, we see Jesus already apply Himself to His proper work – not only the things of His guardian-father, Mary’s husband Joseph, but especially the things of His heavenly Father. He says to Mary His mother, “Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” Conceived without the aid of a man, in the womb of the blessed virgin Mary, God the Father is Jesus’ Father in a way different than God is our Father; Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God; God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; begotten, not made; of one substance with the Father.

So now Jesus begins to apply Himself to the work that the Father has given Him to do, and He will keep on working until that work is perfected, when in Jerusalem several decades later, He will say, “It is finished.”

So in this Gospel we see that Jesus is manifested again as true God in the flesh, and we see Him already as a Boy applying Himself to His work on our behalf and on behalf of all humanity.

But we learn something else, too, by Jesus staying in the Temple instead of going with Joseph and Mary at first: If the situation presents itself where we have to make a choice between being obedient to parents or other earthly authorities, or being obedient to God, we must always be obedient to God first. So we will answer with Christ, “I must be about the business of my Father in heaven.”

The challenge of following through with that sometimes comes for us in dramatic moments of testing, but more often we are tempted by little compromises with the world, so that we don’t seem to be too weird, too out-of-step, too radical, too fundamental. But the Holy Spirit says to us something quite different: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This world, or age, seeks to conform us to it, so that our beliefs and morals match what society expects. Thus we allow certain sins to be acceptable for us as Christians. That must not be! You cannot be a friend of God and a friend of the world. You cannot be a disciple of Jesus and a friend of this age. You cannot be led by the Spirit of God yet embrace the Zeitgeist.

So the Scripture says “that by testing you may discern what is the will of God.” What do we test; how do we test? By means of the Scriptures. The will of God is shown in the word of God. If something in your heart or mind conflicts with what the Word says – your heart and mind are wrong. On account of original sin, many of our impulses, thoughts, feelings, and inclinations are sinful. That is why St. Paul tells us to “be transformed by the renewal of [our] mind[s].”

The first aspect of that is humility. By nature we put ourselves first, and above others. The transformation that God wants for us includes not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought; in other words, to think of ourselves lowly, to put others first, ahead of ourselves. This was always the attitude of Jesus; although He was God, and Lord of all, He became a servant of all, humbling Himself to the point of death.

Already we see that manifested today. Jesus “went down with [Joseph and Mary] and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them.” Jesus obeys the Fourth Commandment, even though for Him it is not necessary and did not apply. He obeyed that commandment and all the others perfectly, so that as the perfect man He could give His life for us imperfect men and women.

Now this “being subject” or “submitting” is to be part and parcel of who we are as Christians. The Scripture tells every one of us, “Submit to God” (James 4.7). Regarding the Government, the Word says, “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” (1 Pt. 2.13). To wives, the Spirit says, “Wives … be submissive to your own husbands.” (1 Pt. 3.1). And again to everyone, it is written, “All of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble’” (1 Pt. 5.5b). Submission is thus the characteristic of the Christian.

How then should we live? We should live in submission as Jesus did. Not in order to be saved, for Jesus has accomplished this for us all in His perfect obedience. Yet being a disciple of Jesus means striving to grow in this submission and humility because we are in Christ, buried with Him in Baptism, in communion with Him in this Eucharist, conformed to Him by His Word and Spirit. And when we fail, as we do daily, we cry with today’s Psalm, “In Your righteousness deliver me!” (Introit). When Jesus tells His mother, “I must be about My Father’s business,” that is it: to deliver us in His righteousness.

Rev. Christopher S. Esget

Preached at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA, on Epiphany I 2009

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