Why are Christmas cracker jokes so awful? I'm sure that you've groaned at some of them this year? I suppose too that someone must sit down and write them. But do they wake up at three in the morning and scribble down their jokes, or do they sit at the kitchen table and doodle for hours on end? And are they paid by the joke or by the hour? And would anyone admit to having composed a cracker joke, and include in their entry in Who's Who – 'writer of cracker jokes'?
Yet amidst the feeble jokes and the general bonhomie of Christmas is the wonder and the joy of the Incarnation. We marvel afresh at what God has done for us in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. We are moved by his identification with us. Like us in every way, yet without sin. As Charles Wesley puts it in his hymn 'Hark the herald-angels sing': Born that man no more may die. Born to raise the sons of earth. Born to give them second birth. Let us rejoice and give thanks for the birth of Jesus!
FirstBelieving for young and old
Have you ever noticed that Luke's gospel begins and ends in the Temple in Jerusalem? Chapter 1 begins in the Temple, and chapter 24 ends in the Temple, and the Temple theme continues throughout the first three chapters of the gospel. When Jesus was eight days old he was in the Temple and when he was twelve years old he was back in the Temple. As individuals Joseph and Mary were pious and devout. Each year they journeyed to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. First, by themselves, then with Jesus, and later (no doubt) on with his brothers and sisters. The personal piety of Joseph and Mary was regulated by the Jewish festivals, and expressed through their worship at the Temple..
Although the Jewish faith was ancient, the building that was its heartbeat was new. When Jesus was a boy it was still unfinished. It was a building site. Ten years after the work started in 19BC the Temple was mostly erected, but it was not finally completed until AD64. And then it only remained in use for another six years before it was destroyed by the Romans. By then the Christian faith had moved out beyond Jerusalem to being established throughout the Roman world. Incidentally, by the third century individual Christian administrators, soldiers and traders had reached us the north-east of England.
The narrative in Luke 2 includes the faith of the young and the faith of the old. Or rather the faith of the very young and the faith of the positively ancient! There was the baby Jesus and the boy Jesus. The pensioners, the elderly Simeon and the ancient Anna. Both well-rooted in the faith they professed. And somewhere, in between, were Jesus' earthly parents, Joseph and Mary. Still young in the faith, but mature in their grasp of heavenly things. Remember of course that spiritual maturity is unrelated to physical age. A young person can be a mature Christian and yet a pensioner can have an immature faith.
As well as the faith of Simeon and Anna, there were two other elderly believers – Zechariah and Elizabeth (the parents of John the Baptist). They were pious, godly and righteous. Here then were the representatives of the faithful remnant. The covenant faith of the fathers was concentrated in this small and devout group of believers. Secure in what they believed. Confident in the faith they professed. Conscious of God doing something highly significant. And for all of them the willingness to pass on to the next generation all that they had experienced. For them this was both a responsibility and a joy and a delight. Putting it another way we see in the gospel narrative different expressions of faith. The inner faith of a few faithful individuals, in contrast to the external faith of a system and of a nation that had lost touch with its God. They were content to go through the motions of religion, but deeply unsettled in the presence of Jesus. Of course the temptation of religious people is always to keep Jesus at arms length. The religious complain, 'What right has Jesus to interfere with my lifestyle, my Sunday worship and my thinking?' And what of Simeon and Anna? They were both devout. They were both pious. They were both prophets.
Simeon, who was 'righteous and devout' (v.25) was prompted and moved by the HS (notice the three references to the Spirit in vv.25-27). The One who came as the bright shining light to the non-Jews, and for the glory of the Jews was seen though the fading sight of old Simeon. And after him, others (like us) would see and believe through the eyes of faith. The Sovereign Lord who had spoken to Simeon and had enabled him to see the One promised in scripture, evoked from him his famous song of praise: 'Lord, now let your servant depart in peace'.
Anna, not just old, but positively ancient. Its not clear from the text whether she was 84 years old, or having been married for seven years she had then been a widow for 84 years. If that is the case she was then well over 100 years old! Whether 84 years old or 84 years as a widow – she was very old! Devout and geriatric. Notice in v.36 that she is described as a prophetess. Now this title was most unusual. In the OT there were just seven women describes as prophetesses. And in the NT there is just the devout Anna. Other women may have prophesied, but only Anna is actually described as being a prophetess. While we have the words of Simeon's song, the words used by Anna are unrecorded. But what we are told is heart-warming. Here was an ancient woman of single-minded devotion. Here was an ancient woman who worshipped and fasted and prayed.
Here was an ancient woman who never left the Temple precincts. She was there each day – whatever the weather - whatever the time of day - whatever the festival - whatever her own personal feelings or circumstances. She was there watching and waiting, expecting and longing for the divine manifestation. But would she live to see it come to pass? Now her patience would be rewarded.
Though the HS is not mentioned in connection with Anna (as he was with Simeon), no doubt that Anna (prompted by the HS) saw Simeon with the child in his arms, and she gave thanks to God. At the same time she spoke to those who were longing for the redemption of the nation. Through her old tired eyes, Anna the prophetess, gave thanks that Jesus had come, and that Jerusalem would be redeemed. Now she, like Simeon, could die in peace.
Believing faith in the young and the old. Of a faith that transcended personal circumstances. Of a faith looking beyond the present to the future. Of a faith deeply rooted in the promises of God. As we look as these examples, may I ask you, what is the sort of faith that you profess? Is it a faith that has Jesus at the centre? A faith measured in months or years? A faith that is stagnant or a faith that is growing and maturing?
Second Believing and obeying
What, I wonder, do you make of the text that we have here in Luke 2? On the face of it, its quite straightforward. We have the birth narrative from Mary's angle Then we have an account of the twelve year-old Jesus in Jerusalem. Then nothing further until Jesus reached the age of thirty (3:23).
But what do you make of these hidden years of Jesus? We read about the baby being circumcised and then twelve years later the same child engaging with the religious leaders in the Temple, and then nothing for the next 18 years. So, out of his short life of about 33 years we only really know about Jesus' three years of public ministry. When he taught about the Kingdom of God, proclaiming the good news, healing the sick; and journeying down from Nazareth and up to Jerusalem and facing the prospect of the cross. Three years that ended not in defeat but in victory. That he had died and had risen. That he had died and had ascended. That he had died and would return!
But while the four canonical gospels are silent about these 18 years, the so-called apocryphal gospels went to town with all manner of inventive fiction. Their contributions sound more like something from a creative writer's course, than giving us an authentic picture of Jesus. This is particularly so in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas. What do you make of these three examples of inventive fiction? What sort of Jesus emerges in these three stories?
Once upon a time, the young Jesus moulded some sparrows out of clay, and because he did this on the Sabbath, he was rebuked by Joseph. And Jesus opened his hands and the birds became living creatures and flew away and praised God. Once upon a time, Jesus and his brother James went out to gather straw. As James picked up the bundles a viper came out and bit him and he fell down apparently dead. But Jesus knelt down, breathed on the wound, and while James lived, the viper died. Once upon a time, Jesus and Joseph were in the carpenter's shop and were making a bed for a tall rich man. But the timber was too short, so Jesus and Joseph took both ends of a plank of wood, and pulled and pulled, until it reached the required length. And Joseph declared: 'Blessed am I that God has given me such a son.' Birds made of clay, a miracle-working teenager, a piece of wood that grew like Pinochio's nose.
Three examples of the improbable. Of gnostic speculation rather than apostolic teaching. Of stories made up to try and fill in the gap of the lost 18 years. Of speculation and invention. Of course to a gnostic community such secrets would only be revealed to the initiated. But to the orthodox, believing community, such stories present us with an unknown Jesus. A Jesus whom we barely recognise – a magician, a miracle-worker, a freak. But what a contrast when we read the testimony in Luke where Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and man (v.52). What a contrast between orthodox and unorthodox teaching! Between scripture and speculation! Between truth and fiction!
So what then do we make of the narrative in the gospel of Luke? Of a son who must be in his father's house (in the Temple). Of a son who was growing in understanding and in knowledge. Of a son who was growing in wisdom and stature. He who had shown wisdom to the teachers of the law, would continue to grow in divine wisdom, and reveal the true nature of the godhead. As the Nicene Creed reminds us, Jesus was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, 'God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father'.
Rather than a hidden and secret Jesus revealed only to gnostics, Luke presents us with a Jesus who represents the wisdom of God (vv.40, 52). This idea was familiar in the so-called wisdom books of the OT (like Proverbs) where the divine wisdom is not just a concept, but a person, an embodiment of the divine truth. Such wisdom was incarnate in the Son. Now where does this wisdom come from? Not from the imagination of a gnostic speculator, but revealed by God himself. Such wisdom was incarnate in the Son. The essence of the divine wisdom 'became incarnate of the Virgin Mary and was made man'. The humble Jesus of the gospel writers who returned to Nazareth and who was subject to his parents, in contrast to the arrogant Jesus of the gnostic writers, who manipulated the world around him to his own advantage.
Believing and obeying expressed in the human Jesus.
And what of the believing and obeying in us?
At heart is our faith rooted and grounded in scripture, and confessed in the creeds? Or is it derived more from speculation and imagination in a Jesus whom we would like to believe in rather than in the one who is revealed to us? Is our faith based on fact or fiction? Truth or error?
Third Believing and growing
Consider with me for a moment the gentleness of Mary and the faith of Mary. Young as she was, she was a simple, humble believer who trusted in the promises of God. Initially troubled by the angelic visitation, she was at first fearful and uncertain, but then submitted her will to God's will.
'I am the Lord's servant' (she said) 'May it be to me as you have said' (1.38). In her great song of praise we are reminded of her humble spirit and her strength of character. In the birth of Jesus and the heavenly visitation, and in the amazed response of the on-lookers, Mary calmly reflected on what happened. And what was her response? To the heavenly visitation? To the miraculous birth? To the response of Simeon and Anna? To the events in the Temple? Look at the significant words. 'Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart' (2:19). 'Mary treasured all these things in her heart' (2:51)
Mary's response was not to speculate or to invent improbable stories. Her response was to to treasure up and to ponder upon that had happened. To remember and to reflect upon all that she had seen and experienced. To recall all that God had done. Of course when Luke was researching material for his gospel, these events would have been disclosed by Mary. After all, she was there. She could tell what had happened, and in the light of subsequent events came to realise their significance. Mary believed and reflected upon what had happened.
And for us today we need both to believe and to reflect. To ponder and to recall all that God has done for us in Christ. This is particularly so at Christmas when the secular mindset would remove all religious elements from the festival. Our response should be to ponder and to reflect even more upon the truth and the reality of the birth of Jesus, and to discover afresh the wonder of the significance of the Incarnation. The faith that sustained Mary is obvious too in the lives of both Simeon and Anna. Here were two people of great age who kept the faith. They were attentive to God's word. They were responsive to God's Spirit. Awake and alert to what God was doing in their midst. Open to what God would continue to do in their lives.
Both Simeon and Anna were sustained in their faith through the regular routine of Temple worship. They may also have been involved in their local synagogue but we are not told. Certainly as far as Anna was concerned, she worshipped, night and day; and she fasted and prayed. Her public devotional life was enriched by her private, regular pattern of simple devotion. And for you and me? How do you sustain the faith we profess? Not just in the early days when you first came to faith and responded to God's grace. After many years how do you sustain the faith that was once so fresh and vital to you? Has your walk with the Lord become stale and lost its importance? Do you go through the motions of a familiar empty piety? Over the years has your Christian faith been deepened and enriched, and become more deeply rooted and grounded in Christ? Or has your first love faded and lost its vitality?
Taking the example of Anna we need to worship and to pray and perhaps also to fast. Anna was sustained through the routine of Temple (and perhaps also synagogue) worship. For us too there needs to be a regular pattern of personal devotion and public worship. Privately this will include regular and disciplined Bible reading, and publicly worshipping with other Christians and receiving communion. Our faith needs to be sustained both by Word and Sacrament. We need to maintain a faith that will last and a faith that will keep us day by day. A faith for today and a faith for tomorrow. A faith that will sustain us in our daily lives and on our deathbeds. To enjoy the daily companionship of the Saviour and to allow him to sustain us and to carry our burdens.
One commentator made this helpful remark: 'If the sight of Christ while still an infant, had so powerful an effect on Simeon [and Anna that they] could approach death cheerfully and quietly, how much more ground there is for us today, when we may see all parts of our salvation completed in Christ? (John Calvin). Simeon and Anna saw only in part, but we see much more clearly.
A faith for the young and a faith for the old. Of a faith that is growing and deepening and more confidently rooted in Christ.
Luke 2 shows us the faith of the young Jesus. Of him being filled with divine wisdom and the grace of God (v.40) and growing in favour with God and men (v.52). And as a boy in the temple, given the opportunity of hearing adults speaking about their faith, and prepared to answer his questions. Luke 2 shows us the faith of Joseph and Mary who went up to the Temple each year. It provided for them a pattern and routine that sustained them in their lives. Luke 2 shows us that faith can be maintained in later life. We see this in the examples of Simeon and Anna. Let us take heart from what we can learn from their experience. To grow more and more like Jesus. The quiet and simple devotion of Joseph and Mary, and of Simeon and of Anna. Let us thank God for their testimony as it points us again to the one who was 'incarnate of the Virgin Mary and was made man'.