Sometimes on a Sunday morning, it seems like we have to tease the meaning of the texts out from all the words and ideas that surround it, sort of like finding a tiny kitten hiding in the brush. You know it’s there; you can hear its little meow for help, but it’s a real scrabble to find it under old leaves and fallen branches. Other times, what God means to say to us in the day’s readings jumps out at us like a lion looking for dinner. We have the hungry, big cat kind of Scripture today.
Wisdom, wisdom, wisdom, wisdom is the word that jumps out at us and catches us by the throat in all four of our readings, so there is no missing it. King Solomon does not ask for faith, or riches or power, either, from God, but for wisdom to know the difference between right and wrong. “Give Your servant,” Solomon asks, “an understanding mind to govern Your people, that I may discern between good and evil….” The psalmist celebrates his understanding of God’s Law, an understanding greater even than that of his teachers, and declares himself wiser than they because he is obedient to God’s commandments. Paul blesses the wisdom and insight God has given to those who follow Jesus Christ, so that we understand “the mysteries of His will” and His purpose for us. And, at the last, we see a twelve-year old Jesus in the Temple, astounding the teachers and the scribes with His precocious wisdom concerning God’s ways.
As a child, I heard these words as a child, and what captured my attention was not the wisdom of a child just a bit older than myself but rather the audacity of that pre-adolescent staying behind in the Temple without asking permission of His mother and foster father. I knew the consequences of such behavior. I overstayed an afterschool visit with a friend in grade school once and my mother had the whole dang school looking for me. I could only wonder, why did God not send the angelic hosts out to scour the road to Jerusalem for sight of Jesus? Because God knew where His Son was, in the very house that King Solomon built for worship of the Lord God. As an adult, and a mother, I sympathized greatly with Mary and Joseph,
knowing that I myself and Henry would be worried sick for Adam or Ian should they be missing for three whole days. But as an adult, putting aside my own concerns as a mother in the hearing of these verses, I hear echoes of the adult Jesus and His Passion. The cross is never as far away from the manger cradle as we would like. We would like to keep the story of Jesus’ birth and His boyhood as sweetly sentimental as possible, a much-anticipated baby born in an unlikely place to angelic fanfare and warm, maternal love. That’s alright for a night and a day, but no longer than that, for wisdom leads us deeper into the story of Jesus’ infancy and youth, that we might better understand what God was and continues to be up to when He made incarnate the Second Person of the Holy Trinity in Mary’s human flesh. Like the hungry lion, the texts that follow immediately after Jesus’ birth are no longer filled with the wonders of a newborn held in the arms of His young mother serenaded by angelic choirs and attended by shepherds.
Rather, Stephen the Deacon is martyred and the children of Bethlehem under two years of age are slaughtered by a king sitting uneasy on the throne of his small patch of God’s earth. From the beginning, we know that Jesus is God’s remedy for sin and death.
And by beginning we mean the very beginning, when teen-aged Mary received an unlikely visitor and an even more unlikely message. Though Mary was hardly a bystander when the angel Gabriel announced her impending motherhood and she was most certainly present at Jesus’ birth, she seems to have, at least over the course of day to day life with Jesus, misplaced whatever understanding she had been given of the nature of her Child and His place in fulfilling God’s purpose. She responds as any mother would when they find the missing child healthy and happy; she is angry at the anguish she has suffered for the three days her Son went missing. “What have You done to Your Father and myself?” she yells.
Then the Child schools His mother, and He begins by reminding her that He has a purpose that is greater than attaining His full maturity, and Joseph is not His father. First, there was no need to look for Him for He was about His Father’s business,
teaching and being taught about that which pertains to God the Father and His work. Here He was not learning Joseph’s vocation, that of carpentry as most sons would, but rather what is the will and purpose of God as expressed in holy Scripture and in Israel’s worship and prayer. Second, He was teaching and being taught in His Father’s House, in the Temple rebuilt by Solomon for God and His worship. And while we do not hear of Joseph’s response to Jesus’ words, we might ourselves feel for him when Jesus denies Joseph’s paternity. Perhaps Joseph never forgot that he was foster father to the long-awaited Messiah, even though it appears that Mary did. We can understand Mary’s misapprehension; it had been, after all, twelve years since His birth and His presentation in the Temple and who would want to remember that line, “and a sword shall pierce you too.”
That Jesus was twelve years old was also important to our understanding, and any wisdom we might gain, from the Gospel of Luke. This is the ninth of nine revelations of the nature and work of Jesus Christ in the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel. This is the only story in the whole of the New Testament that says anything at all about what Jesus was like as a youngster, Matthew only portrays the infant Christ, Mark begins with the adult Christ at His baptism, and John speaks of the pre-eternal Christ. If we do not understand rightly what God is showing us in this story, then we see nothing more than adolescent hijinks that greatly inconvenience His family and friends and show a shocking level of disrespect for the people who have raised Him and kept Him safe. But a twelve-year old boy in the Jewish culture of the day sat one year away from adulthood. In no time at all a twelve-year old boy becomes a thirteen-year old young man, with all the responsibilities of an adult including work. Here is Scripture informing us that this holy Child is child no longer, and on the cusp of beginning the ministry that leads to our salvation.
And how can we be sure of this? Just so we see it, and understand what we are seeing, we are told that Jesus was missing for three days. When else did Jesus go missing for three days? Well, he tarried for three days before going to Bethany to resurrect His friend Lazarus, arriving on the fourth day after the death of Lazarus.
But Jesus was only missing in that He had not arrived in a timely manner for Mary’s and Martha’s peace of spirit. The three days in today’s Gospel reading remind us that Jesus went truly missing from the earth after His crucifixion, as He lay three days in the tomb. We are reminded once again that Christ’s death means life, life everlasting, for all who believe in Him.
The kind of wisdom the Bible speaks to today and always begins with faith, with the comprehension of some part of the mystery that is Christ crucified and raised from the dead for our salvation and creation’s redemption. It involves knowing Who this Jesus is, and what He did and continues to do for us, so knowledge is very definitely a part of being a Christian.
There is a reason that from the beginning of the Church new believers entered a period of instruction about the nature of God and of life with God. But wisdom is still more than this. It is the long experience of the life of faith in a world and time in which sin is losing its grip on creation and death itself is dying. Wisdom is knowing that any evil in the world is itself terminal and unable to overcome the Light of Christ. Wisdom is patience, a hard-won patience come to us through successive experiences of waiting on Christ’s blessings and then receiving them. Wisdom is knowing that Christ will make good come from what is wicked, because we have seen it happen over and over again. Wisdom is discerning the real from the false, what is helpful from what is not, and what matters from that which does not matter. In the end, wisdom is keeping some small part of the light of that singular star that shone over the stable alive in our spirits, that Christmas is always a part of our lives.