Christmas 1 - A Child in the Temple

A sermon preached at St George's Campden Hill by the Revd Ivo Morshead on 30 December 2012

1 Samuel 2 18-20, 26 ; Colossians 3 12-17;  Luke 2 41-52

Words from the Gospel for today;
After three days they found him in the Temple.
And from the epistle
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.

The lessons set for this last Sunday of the year draw our attention, in modern jargon, forward. Forward from birth and infancy, celebrated at Christmas, to childhood. In the first lesson from the book of Samuel is the Old Testament story of the boy Samuel at work in the Temple, in the Gospel for today it is the child Jesus also in the Temple sitting among the teachers. In the case of Samuel, he had no choice in the matter, in the case of Jesus it was part of the New Testament story of redemption.

Samuel’s mother was Hannah, wife of a man called Elkanah who, as was common in those days, had another wife, whose name was Peninnah. The latter had several children but Hannah had none. Every year they went to the Temple at Shiloh for the usual festivals and every year Hannah prayed to the Lord for a son. ‘O Lord’, she prayed, ‘if you grant my wish I will dedicate him to you’. Hannah every year was persecuted by Peninnah who mocked her for her lack of children but Elkanah kept saying to Hannah, ‘I love you best of all for yourself, don’t fret, just rejoice in my love for you’. Hannah persisted in her prayer for a son and at  one Temple festival the Priest Eli saw her as she prayed silently with her lips moving and accused her of being drunk. When he heard her story he prayed too and foretold that her wish would be granted. Thus it came about that when her boy child was born she called him Samuel for as she said ‘I have asked him of the Lord’. Once the child was old enough, sure enough he was handed over to Eli who brought him up to serve in the Temple as a boy tending lamps and running errands. Each year Hannah would visit him bringing with her a new robe that she had made. As we heard in the lesson now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favour with the Lord and with the people.

In contrast with the child Samuel who was in the Temple because he was put there by his mother and was obedient to her, the child Jesus was in the Temple of his own volition and gave his mother three days of anguish as she did not know where he was. In contrast to Hannah and her loving approach to her son Samuel in the temple  bringing him her annual gift of a new robe, Mary’s words to Jesus were pretty strong 'Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.' Yet  the Gospel reading today ends with almost the same words as did the OT lesson 'And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years and in divine and human favour'.

Children are very much part of this past week of Christmas with their attendance at church for the crib services and the families coming in great numbers on Tuesday for the morning service complete with grandparents. One of my tasks during this interregnum is to write copy to fill space left in the weekly newsletter after the run of the mill notices are posted. Each week I research the church ecclesiastical calendar and provide a brief summary about each saint whose day falls in the coming week or lesser festival or commemoration that is observed. This past week has been marked by Five major festivals. The first on Tuesday, the birth of Jesus Christ, the second last Wednesday for Saint Stephen, the First Christian martyr, the third major festival on Thursday for St John the Evangelist, the fourth on Friday  that of Holy Innocents, and yesterday the fifth, Saturday, St Thomas a Becket on the anniversary of his murder by the knights of the king in Canterbury Cathedral. It could be a reflection of the news features in the world today. We have  the killing of one man Stephen for what he preaches, the political murder of another Thomas for displeasing, a ruler and the killing of innocent children, an all too familiar feature of news today. What a week on which to end the year!

A few years ago there was a wonderful exhibition called 'Illuminating The Renaissance'  at the Royal Academy. One exhibit was an altar piece by Simon Marmion completed in 1459 that folds into three and was made for a portable altar. It consists of dozens of small individual paintings in miniature spread across the three wooden panels that fold together for travelling and open out for use on a small table or portable altar. The worshippers would see before their eyes the whole story of redemption amongst which comes the incarnation celebrated at Christmas and Holy Innocents which was commemorated here on Friday. No scene can be isolated from the other any more than one event in our own lives can be isolated from the rest. What we are is what has happened in the past. What we shall be is another matter and that too is depicted on the panels.

Our belief is that God came down to earth to save us from our sins, suffered the worst that man could do to him and gave his life that we might be saved. He took all our guilt upon himself and re-united us to God in spite of the murder of the child boys by Pharaoh and later by Herod, in spite of his crucifixion and desertion even by his closest disciples. He died and rose again to heaven. This is the beacon of hope that can sustain us through the worst of the child murders of our present time, of the continuing persecution or neglect by dictators, governments or forces be they terrorists or those who seek to protect themselves. There have been and are all too many Pharaohs and Herods in history past and present, all too many mothers such as Rachel and Mary weeping over lost ones.

The hope for the future rests with the young. In the lessons set on this last Sunday of the year our thoughts are directed towards the child Samuel and the young Jesus both in the Temple of their time.  We see in their mothers, Hannah and Mary, the care, love  and concern of the parent for her child. Hannah bringing the present of clothing and the concern of Mary as to the whereabouts of her son Jesus. Samuel appears to relish his life dedicated to the Lord from his infancy and Jesus prefigures the time in later life when he entered the same temple and swept it clean of the abuse of the premises by the traders and money changers.

The future was indeed changed by both children. Samuel grew to manhood and judged all Israel. It was he who anointed Saul as King from whose successor David, as we can read in the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, was very much part of the lineage of Jesus. When Jesus grew to manhood he fulfilled the prophecies of old of the saviour king  from whom has stemmed the Church of which we here are very much part.

It is to the Church that Saint Paul refers us as we are addressed  in the epistle for today with the words 'As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness humility, meekness and patience'. When Paul wrote to the Christians in Galatia he stated you have put on the body of Christ. This is an imagery unparalleled in antiquity and owes its origin to the convert to Christianity being assumed to be in a different environment by entering the Church through baptism and becoming new men or women, putting on the body of Christ.

As we come to the end of the old year and begin the new may we be especially conscious that the future lies within the hands of the young and look to the model of Hannah and Mary remembering our need to be clothed at all times with the attributes urged upon us by Paul this morning as we come together to share the one bread and the one cup of salvation that joins us together in this wonderful body of Christ on earth, the church where we strive to nurture and care for the spiritual life of our children.
Holland Park Benefice