Posted: Friday 4th January 2019
I am Blessed… a sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas 2018.
Sermon for 30th December 2018- Rev’d Simon Buckley
You often hear it said that children grow up too quickly these days. Well, going by today’s gospel that’s nothing new. Born only five days ago Jesus is now twelve, but just to confuse you further in next Sunday’s reading he’ll only be two, a week later an adult of about 30, and then a month later, the Feast of the Presentation, he’ll be twelve days old again! We flip backwards and forwards, as we piece together not so much the chronological story of his adolescent life, but instead gather together some of the quizzical reactions of those who encountered this extraordinary child before his ministry began. The one of whom angels spoke to shepherds, whose own mother didn’t fully understand- despite all the ponderings she treasured about him in her heart- and who would completely surprise wise men by not being born in the royal palace. It won’t be until 2nd February, and the Feast of the Presentation, that we will hear conclusively from old Simeon in the temple that this is the one the world had indeed been waiting for. No wonder for centuries, and in some traditions still, the feast of the presentation is the true climax and end of the Christmas season.
The charming story we heard from the gospel according to St Luke today (about Jesus getting left behind by his parents in the Temple, after a family pilgrimage to Jerusalem) is the only story about the young Jesus we have from the four gospels. Otherwise, between the visit of the magi and his appearance for baptism by John the Baptist, we have a large blank.
A short book written some fifty or sixty years after Luke’s gospel, called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, ends with the exact story we have just heard of Jesus being lost by his parents and found in the temple teaching the teachers. But the Infancy Gospel of Thomas also includes a host of entertaining vignettes of a precocious young Jesus. In one he heals a dying child to the amazement of the crowd, and then says “pick him up, give him milk and remember me!” before it says he ran off to play with the other children. There’s a lovely one is in which a five year-old Jesus modelling sparrows out of clay on the sabbath. A local rabbi complains to Joseph that his son has profaned the sabbath by doing this, but when Joseph rebukes Jesus with the exact same words that would be said to him as an adult “why do you do on the Sabbath what it is not lawful to do?”, Jesus simply claps his hands and the sparrows fly off chirping (Infancy Gospel of Thomas 2:4). It’s a sweet story that sits alongside my favourite one where Joseph is in his carpentry shop trying to make a bed for a wealthy customer but doesn’t have enough planks of equal length to make it. He is then overjoyed when Jesus takes hold of a shorter plank and stretches it with his bare hands, so that all the wood is of equal length. Joseph kisses him and declares “I am blessed because God has given this child to me!” (13:2b)
Charming stories, of very doubtful authenticity, which developed later than the four Gospels from which the early church felt gathered together the most reliable information about Jesus and which often -rather than paint a picture of tranquil family bliss- reveal the tensions and misunderstandings that would naturally have arisen where you have a divine child growing up in a human world.
Though dismissed by those who agreed what should go into the canon- the compilation- of scripture by the end of the fourth century, I do like those words attributed to Joseph I am blessed because God has given this child to me! They recall the psalmist who described having children as having your quiver full of arrows (Psalm 127) and they remind me too of the Magnificat too- Mary’s song of being blessed for being chosen by God to be the mother of our Lord (Luke 2)
But they resonate with me most immediately for having watched again, on Boxing Day, the film It’s a Wonderful Life. If you don’t know it… where have you been?! Frank Capra’s comedy/drama, made in 1946, stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man who in a fit of desperation decides to take his own life on Christmas Eve. Enter Clarence Odbody, George’s guardian angel, who shows him the way the world would have been if he had never been born- how many lives he’s touched and changed, how much his community has been enhanced by having him in it.
It is a clever and thought-provoking plot which centres on something that economists call the ‘appropriate counterfactual’… in other words it is an experiment which shows what would have happened if one factor in the story was changed- in this case the existence of George Bailey. The basic question the movie asks is ‘am I living a wonderful life?’, not in a way that can be measured through financial or material prosperity, but “is the world a better place for how I lived my life?”. To what extent do we leave those around us saying “I am blessed because God has given John, Mary, Amy… to me”. ?
That is the wonderful life we are created and called to live and it is the life that Jesus came to share, the one who came saying “I have come that you may have life in all its fullness”, a life characterised not by gain but giving, though as St Francis was to say in his famous prayer “it is in giving that we receive”.
As the needles begin to fall from the Christmas tree, the last box of mince pies languishes in the kitchen cupboard a card arrives too late to find a place among the others, now curling on the string above the radiator, it seems a good time to pause and recall: I am blessed because God has given this child to me! To remember what Christmas was.. is… really about – God’s gift of his Son that we might know what it means to live fully and be fully alive; to give thanks that God has blessed you with that gift of knowing who Jesus is- uncomfortable and challenging as that may be at times. And secondly to ask in what way our lives have been this Christmas- or might be in the year to come- a gift to others: who do we leave in our wake saying I am blessed because God has given this child to me! Can we within this church community be more of a blessing to one another, or appreciate more fully the blessing we already are?
As Mary and Joseph found on their way home from Jerusalem, travelling with others and sometimes especially family members, isn’t always easy; and we rarely have the privilege of understanding fully those with whom we travel. But the gospel calls us to count as blessing the stranger, and the strangest of strangers most of all and to receive each of them as gift and blessing.
I’ve received lots of gifts this year and for all of them I’m extremely grateful- in most cases for the gifts themselves, but in all cases for what they represent. But perhaps the best gift of all will be being able to recognise with all my heart and soul I am blessed because God has given this child….Christ… and you to me! May you share that gift with me.
 Infancy Gospel of Thomas 17:2. Ehrman. New Testament Writings. Oxford, 1998. P.130
 The Tablet 22/29 Dec 2018. P36