Sermon for the First Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 61:1-3 + Romans 12:1-5 + Luke 2:41-52
A blessed Epiphany to you! As we learned this past Wednesday, the word “Epiphany” has a very specific meaning as it’s used in the Church. An “Epiphany” is the visible manifestation of Christ’s hidden divinity. We heard of such an Epiphany on Wednesday as we heard about the star over Bethlehem that guided the wise men to seek the Christ and to worship Him with their precious gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. Those Gentiles came and worshiped Him, because the star, coupled with the Old Testament prophecies about the Christ, revealed His hidden divinity—this Child was God in the flesh and the Christ sent by God to be the Savior of mankind.
Afterwards, as we heard last Sunday, the holy family had to flee to Egypt to escape from King Herod. They returned to Israel after Herod died and lived in Nazareth. And the Holy Spirit has determined that there is nothing else we need to know about Jesus’ youth, until He was 30 years old, except for this one event when He was 12 years old, because it sufficiently summarizes the entire youth of Jesus. The boy Jesus fulfilled His vocations perfectly, and most importantly, He did it for us.
What were His vocations at this point in His life, His callings in life? They weren’t yet what they would later be. Jesus was not yet a teacher or preacher or Rabbi when He was growing up, not a healer or miracle-worker or suffering Servant. He had two main vocations, given to Him by God the Father: He was the Son of God, and the Son of Mary and Joseph.
Jesus was unique, of course, in that He is the Son of God from all eternity. He pre-exists His human birth. But as our human Brother, Jesus was placed by God, not among the heathen nations, but in a Jewish family, a family of Israel. And God had called the nation of Israel His Son. And God saw to it that Jesus was circumcised into the covenant of sonship He had made with Israel, the covenant of the Law of Moses.
So as a Son of Israel and Son of God, Jesus received the vocation of keeping the commandments, keeping the Law of Moses. “Born under the Law to redeem those who were under the Law” as Paul wrote to the Galatians. That Law included the Third Commandment and the Fourth, the ones we especially see Him fulfilling in our Gospel.
The Third Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. And as Luther rightly explains the commandment: We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it. Isn’t that what this whole story of our Gospel is about?
Mary and Joseph took Jesus up from Nazareth to Jerusalem when He was 12 years old, to celebrate the Feast of the Passover there, as all Jews were required by God’s Law to do. They spent the required number of days in Jerusalem, and then Mary and Joseph began heading back to Nazareth, assuming Jesus was somewhere in their caravan. But He wasn’t. He stayed behind in Jerusalem, not to explore the city, not to get into trouble, not to have some fun. He stayed behind in God’s House, in the Temple, because He couldn’t get enough of God’s Word.
After Mary and Joseph realized Jesus wasn’t with them in their caravan, they ran back to Jerusalem and frantically searched for Jesus for three days. They didn’t even think to check the Temple until the third day. And what did they find Jesus doing? They found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers.
Now, see, this wasn’t some mechanical obedience to the letter of the Law, not just some kind of outward obedience to the Third Commandment; the extra days Jesus spent in Jerusalem weren’t required by the Law of Moses. But the real keeping of the Law begins in the heart, with the attitude, with fear, love, and trust in God. And the Third Commandment is truly kept, not by refraining from work on Saturday’s or mechanically attending the required festivals, but by holding the Word of God sacred and gladly hearing it and learning it. That’s what this Gospel reveals about Jesus: a devotion and love for His Father’s Word that doesn’t come naturally to any of us sinners. But it did come naturally to Jesus.
It’s an Epiphany—a manifestation of Christ’s hidden divinity, first, in Christ’s sincere devotion to God’s Word as the sinless One who was not born in sin as the rest of us are; second, in Christ’s astonishing wisdom and understanding of God’s Word, even at the age of 12. And third, it’s an Epiphany in Jesus’ words to His parents when they found Him, Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business? Jesus fulfilled His vocation perfectly.
The other main vocation of Jesus was that of Son of Mary and Joseph. He was placed by God the Father in that family, called to that vocation in that God caused Him to be born to that mother and to be claimed and raised by that father.
Here’s where the Fourth Commandment comes in: You shall honor your father and your mother. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise our parents and rulers, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and respect them. Where do we see Jesus doing that in this Gospel?
First, in what is implied. The fact that Mary and Joseph didn’t think twice about Jesus’ whereabouts as they started their trip home shows just how obedient of a child Jesus was. So obedient that they didn’t worry about Him getting into trouble. So obedient that they didn’t worry about Him watching Him every second. So obedient that they were utterly confused and baffled when Jesus, on this occasion, didn’t do what they expected Him to do. Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously.
Second, we see Him honoring His father Joseph and His mother Mary in how He answered them when they found Him in the Temple. “Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” Notice, He doesn’t apologize; He knows He didn’t do anything wrong, but was, in fact, fulfilling the mission of His Father in heaven. But He also doesn’t give them attitude. He doesn’t “despise them” as lowly human parents or reprimand them for not paying enough attention to Him and leaving Him behind. Instead, He gently reminds them that, while they are His earthly parents, He remains His Father’s Son, that they needed to consider God’s mission for Jesus.
Third, we see Him honoring His father and mother in His actions: He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them…And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men. Even though they were flawed, sinful human beings, even though Jesus was the One through whom all things were made and He was the heir of the universe, He didn’t look down on His parents. He wasn’t snooty or nasty or disrespectful, but He—the Son of God—was subject to His earthly parents, gladly and willingly and from the heart. He fulfilled His vocation as their Son perfectly, and did what every child is supposed to do: increase in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men. That means learning. That means eating. That means devotion to God’s Word, hard work, respect, humility, dependability, and kindness, among other things.
Now, Jesus’ behavior throughout this Gospel is an Epiphany; it reveals to us His hidden divinity. It also reveals to us our own sins—how far short we fall of the righteousness that God demands. Jesus’ perfect devotion to God’s Word, His attitude toward hearing it and learning it, even as the Son of God, reveals how miserable we are by nature, because our flesh does not love to hear God’s Word like that. How many things become more important to us on a daily basis than hearing the Word and receiving the Sacraments? And Jesus’ perfect honoring of His earthly parents reveals how miserable we are by nature, because our flesh chafes under the authority of anyone and hates to submit to others, even loving parents. And even if we obey outwardly, the attitude of our flesh toward our parents and rulers is not the pure love and honor that Jesus demonstrated throughout His childhood.
But Jesus’ behavior throughout His childhood does more than show us how far we fall short. It’s the very thing that earned our salvation and that covers our offenses against God and man. It’s the obedience of Jesus to all the commandments of God, even His obedient suffering and death on the cross, that are applied to us and to all who believe in Christ as our Savior and Redeemer.
Repent of your sins against God and man and look to this Savior, even to His obedience as a child, and know that, in Him, God sees you perfectly devoted to His Word and perfectly obedient to your parents and rulers. God counts you as sinless in His sight through faith in this Jesus. His childhood behavior is an Epiphany of God’s mercy toward poor sinners and the reason why He forgives you your sins.
And now, as Paul writes to the saints in Rome, I beseech you, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. Having been baptized into Christ and clothed with His obedience, having been made perfect sons of God by faith alone in Christ, you now have a special vocation as Christians: to offer your bodies, even your whole lives to God as a sacrifice. You do that within your vocations, whether you’re father, mother, son, daughter, student, worker, employer, neighbor or church member. As believers in Jesus, you are called to be like Jesus in your daily lives.
So let the example set before you today in Jesus as a 12-year-old instruct and inspire you to love God’s Word as He did, and to honor parents and other rulers as He did, to serve God and your neighbor from the heart in all that is given you to do in this life, whether great or small, in every single one of your vocations. In the name of Jesus. Amen.