And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them (Luke 2:50)
When you order a ‘BLT’ sandwich you shouldn’t have to think too hard or work too hard to explain what goes on it.
That was my assumption a couple of months ago when I took a lunch-break and went up the road to a favorite and often frequented sandwich place. I stood in line and scanned the menu up on the wall. The drill is familiar. You order your sandwich and get the basic stuff on it – and then someone else takes that basic sandwich and dresses it up for you with whatever heathy veggie-type items you choose.
On this day I ordered a BLT. Bacon. Lettuce. Tomato. That’s pretty simple.
But as my sandwich progressed to the next stage of the assembly line, the person serving me stood there looking at me, waiting. I stood there awkwardly looking back at her, silently wondering “What’s the problem?” After a moment it dawned on me that she was waiting for me to ask for lettuce and tomato on my BLT. I finally caught on and explained that, yes, I did indeed want lettuce and tomato on my BLT.
I guess what happened there was a good ole’-fashioned failure to communicate. I’ll take my share of the blame for that. But the whole transaction baffled me. I assumed that when you order a BLT, the L and the T come de facto with the B. That’s obvious. No explanations or clarifications required. No need to ask, “Sir, what would you like on your BLT?”
But between the two of us there was a lack of understanding. What seemed so obvious to me was not so obvious to her.
Did You Not Know?
After three days, Mary and Joseph found their twelve year old son in the Temple. He was sitting among the teachers talking theology and offering commentary on scriptural texts. Mary was clearly perturbed. “Young man, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been half out of our minds looking for you” (Luke 2:48 The Message).
Jesus’s answer to his mother is the climactic moment of the story, confronting us with who this boy is. “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” This the first time Jesus speaks in the gospel of Luke, and he calls God his ‘Father.’
At this point Luke adds this very significant statement: “And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them.” Eugene Peterson renders the verse, “They had no idea what he was talking about.”
Every Christmas the story is told of Gabriel’s appearance to Mary. We hear how she was told that she was ‘with child’ by the Holy Spirit, that she would bear a son who would be called holy – the Son of God. The Angel’s message to Mary could not have been clearer.
And yet, twelve years later, Mary does not seem to grasp who this boy is. Twenty years later, as Jesus began his earthly ministry, the gospel writers make it plan that his family still did not understand what he had come to do (See Mark 3:21).
Not So Obvious
During Advent and Christmas we tend to speak of the infant Jesus as if it is obvious to everyone who he is. We use phrases like ‘God incarnate’ and ‘Emmanuel, God with us.’ But these things, while very familiar, are not obvious as to their meaning. They are not simple ideas that are easily grasped and casually accepted.
There are plenty of people who celebrate Christmas but still do not understand who Jesus is.
To say so is not a criticism, but rather an acknowledgement that many people come to Jesus gradually, step by step, slowly coming to terms with what his birth means. You may be one of those people. If so you’re in good company. Mary, the mother of Jesus, did not fully understand her son – even after a message from an angel. Your slow journey to Jesus is hardly exceptional.
But don’t avoid the journey. Yes, Christmas celebrates an event in history – but the event has meaning, and the meaning is tied up with the identity of the child who is born.
It may take you a while to get there. Advent is the perfect time for getting started.
Grant, O God, that during this Advent season we would make a journey to your Son, moving beyond the fact of his birth, to what it meant, and who he truly was. We ask this in his name, Amen.