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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Christmas 12/20/2018

You might know that besides the four gospels that are in the Bible, there are others, mostly written sometime later, after the accepted four. For a variety of reasons, none of these others were deemed worthy of being included in the Bible; none of them made the cut. Conspiracy theorists would like you to think that the exclusion was part of some grand plot to control the message on the part of the early church. It’s safe to say that it wasn’t but such theories provide fodder for books, magazine articles, TV shows and the like. I sometimes wish that some of these writers and media types would show as much interest in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as they do in the others.

One of those other gospels is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas which isn’t really a story of Jesus’ infancy at all but is a collection of stories from the so called hidden childhood years of Jesus, purportedly telling about some of the things he did at ages five, six, eight and twelve. It includes things like Jesus making birds out of clay and then breathing life into them, resurrecting a friend who fell from a roof and causing the son of Annas the scribe to wither up like a tree that would bear no fruit.

Such stories, while entertaining, are dismissed as being inauthentic by those who make decisions about such things. However, it may be that the author was just trying to tell stories that helped people to better understand who he believed Jesus to be, maybe especially to help young people come to that understanding. It’s kind of like the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. As far as historians know, it’s not true in the sense of having actually happened, but it is true in describing the kind of person Washington was.

The childhood stories of Jesus can function the same way. For example: the story of Jesus bringing clay birds to life was done on the Sabbath, thus anticipating conflicts Jesus would have concerning Sabbath violation and his interpretation of the law. Resurrecting a young friend anticipates his power to heal and to restore life. Causing the son of Annas to wither up, while a bit repulsive, anticipates his conflict with the religious authorities; Annas the scribe would become Annas the high priest. All of this does fit with the picture of Jesus we get from the four authentic gospels.

A positive view of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas then would say that the author has filled in the unknown period of Jesus’ boyhood with imaginative stories that further expand on what was known about him from his ministry. The underlying principle would be that the child must have already been who the man was known to be, that is, God’s son speaking and acting with divine power.

Today we get the one story about the hidden years of Jesus that is included in the Bible, Luke’s story of 12 year old Jesus in the temple. It’s also the last story mentioned in the Infancy Gospel. In Luke it does seem like something of an awkward addition as it doesn’t go along with what has been revealed in previous chapters. For example, Joseph is called the father of Jesus which we already know is not the case. Also, Mary and Joseph don’t understand when Jesus calls God his Father when in previous verses this has already been revealed to them by angels.

It may be that it is a later addition, a story that was circulating at the time Luke wrote, one that he thought was worthy of inclusion for theological reasons despite the inconsistencies. As we read it though, it’s perhaps best to ignore the inconsistencies with earlier verses and to just consider the story as an independent unit.

Part of what we have to remember is that there was what one could call a “backward development” in understanding who Jesus is as the Son of God. Such understanding didn’t start until the resurrection. Without the resurrection, Jesus would just be another martyred prophet and teacher. Seeing him as the Son of God begins with the resurrection and from there the early church traced the revelation of Jesus back though the cross, through the remembered events of his life, to his baptism and to his conception and birth. John goes back even further than conception to “the beginning” with the verses read on Christmas morning: “In the beginning was the Word…and so forth,” verses that connect Jesus to creation.

Everything though, is written from the perspective of one who believes in Jesus as the Risen Christ, the Son of God. Matthew and Luke craft the Christmas stories with which we are so familiar with this identity of Jesus in mind. The goal is to have others see Jesus the same way. Their stories of Jesus’ birth are then as much, maybe more about the crucified and Risen Christ as they are about the baby Jesus.

After working backwards though, the church mostly settles on is what is called “conception theology” that says that Jesus was the Son of God from his conception. However, that’s not to say that stories about Jesus’ childhood like those in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas can’t convey some of the same theology. The same goes for today’s story about 12 year old Jesus in the Temple.

In this story, the location is significant: Jesus, at age 12, has already begun his activity in the Temple, activity that ends many years later with him cleansing the Temple, turning over the tables of those selling things and changing money, the event that triggers his arrest, trial and crucifixion. There is some foreshadowing going on here but the Temple location also reinforces the faithfulness and piety of Jesus and his family. In traveling to Jerusalem for the Passover they were being obedient to the Law of Judaism.

Along with this, attention is called to the wisdom of Jesus. In the verse that preceded today’s reading it says “And the child grew up and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” Today’s last verse says “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years and in divine and human favor.” The amazement of the Temple teachers bears witness to Jesus’ wisdom: “All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers,” and of course such amazement follows Jesus throughout his ministry.

All of this is consistent with the rest of Luke’s gospel. What is perhaps most significant though, is that it is in this story that we get Jesus’ first words in Luke. In all of the gospels Jesus’ first words are worthy of attention. In Mark his first words have to do with the Kingdom of God. In Matthew Jesus responds to John the Baptist’s question about who should be baptizing whom which begins to get at the high standard of righteousness that Jesus’ followers are called to. In John, Jesus asks two of John the Baptist’s disciples, “What are you looking for?” a question which is always relevant, always worth thinking about.

In Luke Jesus’ first words are in response to the question of his anxious parents after they had been looking for him for three days: “Child, why have you treated us like this?” Jesus’ response and his first words in Luke are “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Jesus’ apparent disregard for the concern of Mary and Joseph is bothersome for some but paying too much attention to that misses the point plus his response is actually quite consistent with other gospel stories that involve the identity of Jesus’ family; his priorities are always with the extended family of God rather than with his biological family.

What you get here though is Jesus’ identification of God as his Father. He is God’s Son, an important theological revelation. Despite the distraction caused by the inconsistency of some of the details, despite Jesus’ abruptness with Mary and Joseph, with these first words, this story makes a major theological statement about who Jesus is. It is a somewhat awkward fit in Luke’s gospel but awkward or not, the identification of God as Jesus’ Father may well be why Luke chose to include it.

As we work our way through Luke’s gospel throughout the upcoming year, there will continue to be confusion about Jesus identity among those he encounters, including those closest to him. Through what is revealed in his opening chapters though, we already know; we know who Jesus is.

We’re in the final couple of days of 2018, anticipating 2019 and with that, for many, come resolutions and hopes for the New Year. What we might ask is how does the knowledge that Jesus is the Son of God affect our hopes and dreams and resolutions for 2019? It’s really a good question at any time, one that’s always worth coming back to, because while knowing Jesus as the Son of God is important, we also remember that a response is called for.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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