Sunday 27th December 2015, Christmas 1, morning

Luke 2:41-52

by Revd Chris Palmer

So, we’ve jumped forward twelve years in two days, to the story of Jesus in the Temple.

Our initial response is to see it as the story of a lost child. This is such a frequent theme, a deep fear, and an occasional experience in our society. And every parent will sympathise with Mary’s anxious telling off, ‘Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety’. ‘We were just worried about you…’ we say.

But the story was a common subject for artists from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, and it’s only later in this period that the lostness of Jesus and his being found were emphasised. Mary and Joseph were often not depicted. The artists were more interested in Jesus sitting among the teachers – or the ‘doctors’ as they called it, an old word for teachers. And the paintings are stylised, as you’d expect. Jesus is often seated on a podium, speaking, and using gestures characteristic of mediaeval rhetoric, and his listeners hang on his words.

This is something of a distortion of the story. Luke says, ‘they found him [that is, Jesus] sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions’. True, in the next verse it says, ‘all who heard him were amazed as his understanding and his answers’. But the point remains, Jesus wanted to learn.

The mediaeval artists needed to turn him into the teacher, even aged twelve. And some of the paintings come with a dose of prejudice, as Jewish teachers are depicted as unflattering caricatures. The anti-Semitism that blighted Europe for centuries was reflected in these paintings in which the Christian Jesus teaches the truth to the erroneous Jews.

But as an image of incarnation, the biblical portrait is far more engaging: the Son of God must be taught. Yes, he is already filled with wisdom and closeness to God; but he knows that he’s got a lot to learn. For God to become incarnate means to be subject to the limitations of knowledge and understanding that we all face. Lacking knowledge is not a failure or sin; the failure is thinking we know more than we do.

Of course, there is the beginning of an adolescent ‘pulling away’ in the story. Jesus aged 12, the age when he was required to take on observance of the Jewish Law, has a sense that his home is somewhere different. Mary says, ‘Look your father and I have been searching…’, meaning Joseph; but Jesus says, ‘didn’t you know that I must be in my father’s house’, meaning God.

And there is a deliberate contrast between Jesus’ understanding – ‘all who heard him were amazed at his understanding…’ – and Mary and Joseph’s lack of understanding – ‘they did not understand what he said to them…’

But even this pulling away from his childish dependence reflects an ordinary process of development we all go through, separating from parents, discovering our own vocation and purpose. Jesus, God’s incarnate word, prophet and teacher, had first to learn, to develop, to discover his vocation. And this included learning obedience – and continuing to increase in wisdom. 

And these things never come to an end. We talk about ‘life-long learning’. Later in the bible, the writer to the Hebrews says that Jesus ‘learned obedience through the things he suffered’. Although we believe Jesus never actively disobeyed God, there is an ongoing deepening of his capacity to obey, to accept and embrace the demands of living and unexpected reality of the world.  You can see it in Jesus discovering God’s acceptance of the Syro-Phoenician woman, or Jesus learning obedience in Gethsemane.

What is clear is that life-long learning for Jesus is more than skill and knowledge; it is about an expanded vision, a deepening capacity to endure, and growing maturity. The need to tread this path is simply what it means for anyone, including Jesus, to be human. To tread it well was the gift of the one who reveals the potential and truth of our humanity to us.

It is very easy for our pride to get in the way of learning. Somehow we identify the need to learn with a deficiency we are loath to admit. We have to show off that we know more, know best, can teach. But the real failing is not needing to learn, but failing to learn.

30 years ago a religious studies professor called John Hull published a book called What Prevents Christian Adults from Learning? [1] His starting point was that many Christian Adults seemed to have given up learning about faith when they left Sunday School, and there is an extreme reticence in churches to learn more. He doesn’t give any simple answer to his question. He examines among other things our deep-seated need to be right, which learning challenges; the problems of learning in an ideological community – which clearly the church is – where learning not only expands knowledge but challenges our commitments in uncomfortable ways; and the way faith grows with our self-growth, while many adults are immune to self-growth. I was trying to say something of this at midnight mass: it’s the commitment to growing maturity in human relationships that helps us deepen relationship with God also.

I wonder whether many people use church as an escape from the pressures of life which demands learning new skills, challenging our limited experience, and being constantly stretched by performance management reviews. In church we want not to be stretched, challenged, or asked to learn – it a refuge from such things.

Clearly such a retreat from the world can only work for a while. To treat church like that is not a ‘retreat’ in anything like the Christian sense of the world, which means time away with God in order to allow him to mould us, change us, teach us, convert us. Far from being the place where we safely avoid being stretched and confronted with uncomfortable reality, church should be precisely the place where we come for such learning.

And ultimately this is healing. Because to confront God who calls us to our best selves, who loves us and has our truest interests, our deepest desires in his heart, is always hopeful. To the extent that we avoid true learning, we are avoiding God.

So my encouragement for 2016 is to include learning about faith in our intentions for the year. Read, ask questions, revisit sermons, join a study group, Lent group, or home group, do the bishop’s certificate in discipleship, or some modules from it… and be open not only to new facts, but also to the true learning which is to discover God’s heart and mind for you – and learn the courage to follow.


[1] John M Hull, What Prevents Christian Adults from Learning?, SCM, 1985