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Sermon for the First Sunday after Epiphany
Romans 12:1-5 + Luke 2:41-52
There were many kinds of sacrifices and offerings in the Old Testament. There were sin offerings. There were peace offering. And there were also whole burnt offering. The offering and burning of a whole animal on God’s altar was to teach the people of Israel that a person’s whole life should be completely devoted to God. It seems to be the whole burnt offering that St. Paul had in mind in our Epistle today when he encouraged the Roman Christians, Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.
You want to see what it looks like in practice, to offer your whole self in service to God? Watch Jesus today in the Gospel—the Boy Jesus when He was twelve years old.
Some important things have happened since we left Jesus in the Temple last week with Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna. Joseph was warned in a dream to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt, because King Herod was searching for Him, to kill Him. Herod did kill all the baby boys of Bethlehem who were two years old and younger. But Jesus was kept safe in Egypt until Herod died. Then God directed them back to the land of Israel, and up to the region of Galilee, where Mary and Joseph had lived prior to Jesus’ birth.
Once Herod was gone, it was safe for the holy family to make the annual trek down (or up) to Jerusalem for the Passover. God required His people to make that annual journey, both in commemoration of the first Passover, and in anticipation of the true Passover of the Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. So every year, Mary and Joseph would go to Jerusalem to the feast in commemoration of the death and resurrection of their Son—though they surely didn’t understand that at the time.
But Jesus did. He knew His purpose. He knew that each Passover He attended was a sort of rehearsal for Holy Week. Luke tells us that He went with His parents to Jerusalem when He was twelve. Whether or not He went before that, we don’t know. But now that He’s twelve, He is expected to follow all the commands imposed by the Law of Moses on an Israelite. He was now a Bar Mitzvah—a Son of the commandment.
After the Passover, Mary and Joseph left to start the long trip home to Nazareth. But Jesus stayed behind. He didn’t get lost. He didn’t run away. He “lingered.” His parents—rather carelessly, it seems—left Jerusalem, assuming Jesus was with some of their relatives who had traveled from Nazareth with them. That reveals just how much they trusted in this twelve-year-old boy. He never got in trouble. He never disobeyed. They could always count on Him to do what was expected of Him. Until now.
They go back searching. They had already traveled a day’s journey, so another day to travel back, and then after three days, or probably on the third day, they found Him. Not playing with the other kids His age. But sitting in the Temple, 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. He had, if you will, enrolled Himself in the church’s school, and was taking advantage of the opportunity to listen to the teachers of the law, to ask questions, and to answer their questions. And He proved to be an amazing student.
You can imagine Mary and Joseph’s joy mixed with surprise with a bit of anger. Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously.
“Son,” Mary called Him. And, of course, He was that. She refers to Joseph as “Your father.” And, legally and practically, that was true, too. But it seems they forgot for a moment who this Boy really was, and why He had come into their lives in the first place. He reminds them: Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business? Jesus is twelve now, a Son of the commandment. His life—His whole life—is and has always been devoted to the service of His Father. When He was a Baby, you couldn’t see that. But now you can. You can see where Jesus’ heart is: fixed on learning God’s Word, as every child must do, yearning to be in God’s House, determined to spend His life doing His Father’s business. This is what whole-self service to God looks like for a twelve-year-old.
But then it’s also going back with His father and mother when they tell Him to, and, as Luke tells us, being “subject to them.” And “increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” Those are the duties God has given to children. And Jesus shows us what it looks like to carry out those duties, from the heart, as One who has devoted His whole self to serving God.
Why did the boy Jesus render this whole-self service to God His Father? Because He loved Him with His whole heart, His whole soul, His whole mind, and His whole strength. That love for God, on this occasion, brought Him into conflict with His parents, whom He also loved. But when it comes down to whether to obey God or to obey man, God has to win every time. And He always did in Jesus’ life.
There is the innocent sacrifice, the spotless offering that mankind needed, to whom all the Old Testament offerings pointed. As the perfect, sinless, spotless Lamb who loved God from the bottom of His heart and served Him with His whole life, and as the Son of God, whose life is of infinite worth and value, He was the offering, He was the substitute that we all needed.
Because, parents, you know that, in addition to all your other sins, you’ve had your share of failures in raising your children and in guiding them to serve the Lord with their whole lives, even as Mary and Joseph stumbled in our Gospel. And children, you know that, in addition to all your other sins, hearing and learning God’s Word, faithfully, regularly, eagerly, is not always what you want to do, and submitting to your parents, obeying them, without any complaining, without any whining, without any disrespect for them in your heart—that doesn’t describe you, does it?
And so Jesus, our Substitute, who truly loved His Father and devoted His whole life to His Father’s service, is qualified to be the spotless sin offering, whose blood, shed on the cross 21 years after the incident in our Gospel, pays for all your sins and self-service. He is qualified to be the spotless peace offering, who makes peace between God and man and brings you into God’s family through His Sacrament of Holy Baptism, and sits down to have a meal with you in His own holy Supper. And He is qualified to be the whole burnt offering, whose blood now cleanses your service, as baptized children of God, so that, even though your service to God isn’t perfect, still He is pleased with it and accepts your works of love for Jesus’ sake.
And so, St. Paul pleads with you, baptized children of God who know the mercy of God in sending His Son to be your Substitute, your Sacrifice, your Savior— I beseech you therefore, 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.
The world around you wants your attention. It gives you games to play. And games to watch. And shows to entertain. It gives you countless opportunities to work, to explore, to make money and to spend it, too. It gives you the chance to pursue friendships and relationships and courtships. But all to have a good earthly life. To have fun here. To be comfortable here. To pursue happiness here. And you see most of the people around you in the world conforming their lives to that. But St. Paul says, do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. You’re Christians. Think differently about the world than non-Christians do. Think differently about your life. Make different goals—godly goals, goals to pursue God’s service and God’s will in the work you do or in the career you pursue, in the marriage you’re in, if you’re married, and in the marriage partner you’re looking for, if you’re looking.
All this begins, of course, with a zeal for godliness. It begins with knowing your Small Catechism—a summary of the most basic truths of the Christian faith—and reviewing it often. It continues with regularly hearing the preaching of the Word and receiving the Sacrament, and with knowing the Bible and learning to know it better this year than you did last year. It continues with regular prayer, with daily repentance, and with asking the question each and every morning, how shall I serve my God today? How shall I walk in the footsteps of Jesus my Savior? Not to earn my salvation. He’s earned it for me and paid for all my sins. But as redeemed children of God, Jesus teaches us what the whole-self service of the child of God looks like. May He grant you the zeal to spend your whole life pursuing it. Amen.