DON’T KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
December 27, 2015; 1st Sunday after Christmas, Year C
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Luke 2:41-52

“[Jesus] said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’”
Luke 2:49

I don’t know you spent Christmas Day, but it’s very possible you did it in the company of family. That’s what we did. My brothers Jim and Dave were both here visiting, along with our son, Ben. Late in the day we did what we typically do on Christmas evening: we drove down to Toms River, to the home of my Aunt Lois. Her four children — our cousins — were there as well, along with their own families.

This was a powerful Christmas for us all: because this was the first time in three years we were able to have that gathering, in that location. For the past two Christmases there was no house to visit. Superstorm Sandy had seen to that. After being evacuated from their house by boat, my aunt and uncle moved into an apartment, although my uncle didn’t live long enough to see the new place.

Still, as we gathered, familiar patterns reasserted themselves. It was, as always, an evening of stories — family stories. Some made us laugh. Others brought a tear to the eye. Most of them we’d heard before, in one form or another, but there were a few new ones. With this kind of story, it doesn’t matter if you know what’s going to happen. In fact, it’s better if you do: because the point of telling of such stories is not to exchange information. It’s to strengthen the ties that bind.

There are all sorts of families out there. Some of them share a common genetic heritage. Others don’t. There are individuals who enter the family orbit through adoption; others through marriage. Sometimes people put their own family together from whole cloth, through a sort of mutual agreement. With all these different patterns, the word “family” can be difficult to define.

One definition that works, I think, is to say a family is a group of individuals who share the same stories. It’s the telling and the retelling of those stories that makes us who we are, collectively: that makes the whole family greater than the sum of its individual parts.

*****

In today’s New Testament lesson, we have one of those significant family stories. It has its origin in the Mary-and-Joseph family. It’s the only story that tells us what Jesus was like as a boy.

At the end of the story, Luke explains how the tale came down to us. “Mary,” he tells us, “treasured all these things in her heart.”

If you were here Christmas Eve and paid attention to the scripture readings, you would have heard something very similar. After telling of the angels’ message to the shepherds, Luke says, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

Both the birth narratives and this story of the boy Jesus in the Temple share the same footnote. The started their life as treasured family tales. Luke’s source for this story was none other than Mary herself.

It’s a hair-raising tale, as any parent will agree. Losing a child in a public place is up there on the list of parents’ worst nightmares.

Now before you go thinking that Mary and Joseph were negligent parents, and that somebody should have called in the first-century equivalent of DYFS, consider the fact that this was a village culture. This is one of those cases where “it takes a village to raise a child.” As Mary, Joseph and Jesus make their way from Nazareth to Jerusalem for the Passover festival — a journey of 4 or 5 days on foot — they’re not traveling alone. A large part of Nazareth is traveling with them.

Both coming and going, it’s a long caravan. These are people who’ve known each other well, all their lives. Parents watch each others’ children, without giving it a second thought. The kids cluster together, on the journey, with kids of similar age. The 12-year-old boys have their own traveling contingent. Their parents are well aware of this, and sort of keep an eye on them from a distance — but they don’t hover, trusting the kids to look out for each other.

It’s a full day before Mary and Joseph realize their son has gone missing. When it turns out no one has seen him all day, since they left Jerusalem, they go into full panic mode.

Losing a kid along the road in open country is one thing — in a long column of people, chances are he’s somewhere ahead or behind, and other eyes are watching him. But if he was left behind in the big city, that’s a different matter. Things could happen to a boy back there in Jerusalem. Bad things.

Mary and Joseph dash back as fast as they can, and start retracing the steps of their little company of pilgrims. It takes a very long time — three days, all told — before they finally catch up with him in the Temple.

Jesus reaction is the picture of nonchalance: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

*****

One of the hard things about two generations living together in a family is that the covenant of freedom’s always being renegotiated. As children get older, they can handle more responsibility themselves. For parents, though, handing over that responsibility isn’t easy. Friction between the generations — sometimes called the generation gap — is the result.

You can see that discomfort — vividly — in today’s passage. When they track Jesus down at last, Mary and Joseph are fit to be tied. “Why have you treated us like this?” Mary asks, making sure Jesus knows how anxious he’s made them.

Almost as soon as those words are out of her mouth, Mary realizes what’s really going on. It’s not that Jesus was inconsiderate. As a 12-year-old boy, he was only doing his job, testing boundaries. He was starting to come into his own, as an adult.

She looks on her son with new eyes: how easily and comfortably he discusses the scriptures with these learned scholars! In a moment of revelation, Mary realizes her active role, as a parent, is on the wane. With each year that follows, her Jesus will become, more and more, his own man. In that flash of insight, she experiences the wave of grief all parents eventually feel, when their children leave them. This is what — for their children’s sake — they’ve wanted all along. But when it finally begins to happen, they’re not so sure.

Yes, it’s anxiety Mary and Joseph are feeling. But, on a deeper level, it’s not so much anxiety as grief.

*****

Jesus, of course, belongs to us as well. The infant child in the manger is our child too. As with all parents, there’s a part of us that wants to keep him there: to cherish him, to care for him.

There’s a crazy Will Ferrell movie, “Talladega Nights: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” He plays a goodhearted — but dimwitted — racecar driver. One of Ricky’s idiosyncrasies is that, whenever he sits down to a meal, he folds his hands, bows his head, and offers thanks to “Lord Baby Jesus.”

Ricky’s wife, Carley, has heard this many times. Finally she gets up the gumption to call him on it. “Hey, um, you know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him ‘baby.’”

Ricky replies, curtly: “Well, I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace.”

There is no shortage of people who, like Ricky, “like the Christmas Jesus best.” What’s not to like? Just about everybody’s got a soft place in their heart for babies!

But, babies grow up. So, too, does the babe of Bethlehem. And he’s a good bit harder to deal with than the babe in the manger!

“Repent and believe in the gospel,” he teaches.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (The MEEK — what did they ever do to deserve that kind of bonus!)

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” (Yes I know, but couldn’t I just practice my faith anonymously?)

“I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Our ENEMIES, Lord? Not those people. You can’t be serious!)

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…. but, rather, treasures in heaven.” (Yes, Lord, I know our treasure’s in heaven — but could I trouble you for a little cash advance?)

The point is, as lovely as the Christmas story is, Christmas — as they say — comes but once a year. It’s only the beginning of this great witness of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. There’s a lot more where that came from!

Just yesterday I found myself driving, once again, behind a car that had one of those bumper stickers that says, “Keep Christ in Christmas.” I really do agree with the importance of keeping Christmas free from commercialism, but on the other hand, I don’t think there’s much chance of keeping the Son of God anywhere he doesn’t want to stay. Isn’t it just a shade presumptuous for the likes of you and me to start giving him orders?

Kids grow up — as Mary and Joseph discovered, at the Temple. And the babe who was “born to you in the City of David” doesn’t stay either a babe or a resident of Bethlehem for very long.

Our society would be perfectly fine with us packing the Christ child up in a box, each January, along with the tree ornaments and the strings of lights. That would be keeping Christ in Christmas.

But we’re not meant to keep Christ in Christmas. The Christ child just lies there sweetly on his bed of hay, smiles back benignly, never confronts us, never challenges us. He never goes anywhere on his own. Other people have to carry him — and if they don’t, he stays right where he is.

As with any other human child, the Christ child must grow and develop. He must become the adult savior, who nudges us beyond our comfort zone.

New Year’s is coming in a few days. What if, for our New Year’s resolution, each of us were to pledge ourselves to be completely open to where the Lord is leading us in 2016? What changes could we then bring about in the world around us! With the Lord on our side, what love and justice could we help others discover and make real in our own lives!

It wouldn’t take a lot of us, making such a sincere, all-encompassing commitment. After all, look at what Jesus accomplished with just 12 people who were willing to take him at his word!

No, let’s not keep Christ in Christmas. Let’s not keep him anywhere. Let’s just open our hearts and let him enter in, to use us as he will.

Copyright © 2015, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.