Plymouth United Church of Christ

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What Child Is This?

A sermon delivered at Plymouth United Church of Christ,
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, on 30 December 2012
by George J. Stecher
Scripture text: 1 Samuel 2:18–20, 26; Luke 2:41–52
According to our church year, Jesus was born less than a week ago and the magi still haven’t arrived, yet our lectionary gospel text this morning already speaks about a twelve-year-old Jesus. I, however, am still in a Christmas mood, and I suspect you might be, too, so I’m going to look at that text and ask one simple—or maybe not so simple—question: “What child is this?” It’s the question asked in the Christmas carol by William Dix, which we will sing shortly. Of course the carol also answers the question: “This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing,” but I think that the hymn writer himself would agree that that’s only a partial answer.

Our text from Luke speaks of Jesus remaining in the temple after a visit, amazing the teachers with his questions and answers, yet not informing his worried parents about his whereabouts. His own mother doesn’t quite know what to make of him. Luke then tells us that he “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor,” which parallels our 1st Samuel text this morning. “Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.”

But let’s go back to Jesus. “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” That statement might challenge many of the prevalent ideas about Jesus. We have been inundated with the idea of a perfect Jesus, and hearing that Jesus can improve can be challenging to many Christians. That verse, and the Christmas story itself, raise questions that theologians have debated for centuries. How can Jesus be human and divine? If he is human and divine how do these coexist? Or, to quote the carol, “What child is this?” He is said to be Emmanuel—God is with us—and yet in this morning’s story he doesn’t seem overly concerned about the agonizing worry of his parents. How can this be? These questions are both somewhat unimportant—I think God cares much more about our actions than our theological understandings—but also very important because our attitudes and understanding affect how we act.

I’m going to concentrate on two words that we often hear around Christmas—Emmanuel, which means “God with us” or “God is with us” and incarnate, which means to given body or substance. Both of these are applied to Jesus—Christians have long claimed that Jesus was both Emmanuel and God incarnate. And although as Christians we give a special meaning to those words as they apply to Jesus, they also apply to us, and to our neighbors, and I think it’s important that we recognize that fact. I’ll come back to that in a bit.

As we can see from our passage this morning, it’s difficult to reconcile divinity and humanity in a person. Not only theologians but New Testament authors themselves struggled with it, and didn’t always agree. Let me give you an example. The Living the Questions curriculum we used this fall in the adult education class raised an interesting question: When did Jesus become divine? In the first sentence to his letter to the Romans Paul hints that Jesus became divine at the resurrection: “Jesus” writes Paul, “was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead.” There’s no mention of his birth, only that he “was descended from David according to the flesh.” Mark tells us nothing of Jesus’ birth, either. If we only had Mark’s gospel—and, no doubt, that’s all some early churches had—we might conclude that Jesus became divine when the Spirit descended on him like a dove at his baptism. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus is born divine: “for the child conceived in [Mary] is from the Holy Spirit.” Similarly, in Luke’s gospel Jesus is born divine, although, as we see in today’s reading, he continues to grow in divine favor. In the fourth gospel, John, the clock is pushed back farther . . . all the way to the beginning of all things. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” and then “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Confused? The New Testament writers had several answers. Perhaps that means when Jesus became divine isn’t the important question. I’ll leave that for theologians to fight over (and, sadly, for denominations to split over). Yet Paul and all four evangelists agree that he was somehow divine. I think it would we wise to concentrate on the similarities: that God, in Christ, was with us. Is with us. Emmanuel. God with us.

That is what Christmas is about. Emmanuel. God with us. And that is important, not just to theologians, but to us. It means that God is here, with us. We need not travel through distant heaven to find God. God is here. With us. And Emmanuel was not some strange unreal ethereal being, but a baby, a boy who forgot to tell his parents where he was, then an adult human being. God incarnate, that is, in bodily form. Christmas is about God being with us: eating and drinking with us, laughing with us, weeping with us. Christmas is about God taking human form and dwelling within one of us.

But not just one of us. Both the New Testament and our liturgy are full of words that not only speak about God being in Christ, but also about God being in us, and in others. They also speak about us being in God. Now that may sound scary, if not blasphemous. Jesus was the Son of God but surely we are not sons and daughters of God! But listen to this: John’s gospel tells us that we also are given “the power to become children of God.” Listen to these words from the letter to the Ephesians: “in whom you are also built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” We refer to ourselves as the “body of Christ.” We say that he or she was “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Our children have often sung a Bryan Sirchio song with the words “Wherever Love, is, God is there too, God is in me ’cause I love you.”

This idea of God being in us (and therefore also with us) is also found in Christmas carols:

“Where meek souls will receive him, still, the dear Christ enters in.” Enters into what? Into us. And in the next verse:

“O Holy Child of Bethlehem descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in; Be born in us today.”

I’ve just mentioned a few, but browse through the New Testament or hymnals or old church bulletins and you will find many expressions about God being in us, dwelling in us, entering into us, and that we are the house or body or temple of God.

And, according to both the New Testament and our church language, we are in God! In the book of Acts, Paul, preaching in Athens, states “For in [God] we live and move and have our being.” In his letter to the Romans he writes “you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Remember the hymn line “we are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord”

In Romans Paul goes so far as to say that through Christ we are in one another. “So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another.” And the letter to the Ephesians states “Let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.”

Now I’m not claiming that we are divine in the same way Jesus was: I’ll leave it to theologians to debate whether it was a matter of kind or of degree. But I will claim that God wants us to see Christ, God, the Spirit, in others and in ourselves. Remember Jesus’ words: “I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. . . Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Why is this important? Because we are all interwoven, entangled, indwelling, incarnate, and somehow combined with God and with each other. When you love God, you love yourself, and you love one another. And the other way around. And when you hurt another, you hurt yourself, and you hurt God.

Look around you. Look at your family; look at your friends; look at your neighbors; look at that person you don’t like or who annoys you; look at your enemies. That’s where God dwells. Look for God there. Live like God is in them and in you. God is with us. Emmanuel. God is in us. Incarnate. And we are in God.

So . . . What child is this? I haven’t really answered that question either, but I’ll summarize my partial answer. This child is Emmanuel, God with us. This child is God incarnate. This child is the one who showed us and still shows us that God is with us and in us, and in our neighbor. May we realize this and all increase in wisdom, and in divine and human favor.

Thanks be to God.

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Plymouth United Church of Christ
2010 Moholt Drive
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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