Trinity, Lincoln—Luke 2:41-52
Every day, I use a number of devices that are intended to help me accomplish my work more efficiently, and to therefore make my life easier. They do—and yet they don’t, because it seems like I’m busier than ever. I think there’s a rule that decrees that, for every advance in technology, there’s a corresponding increase in expectations, such that the increase in efficiency or convenience offered by the technology is nullified by an increase in what we demand of ourselves.
And I know I’m not unique. We lead busy lives. Many years ago, I reached a point in my life where I realized I have more money than time and energy. So I pay people to do things I may once have done for myself—wash the car, do routine yardwork, do my taxes, take care of minor electrical and plumbing repairs around the house—and the list goes on. These are tasks that I probably have the intelligence to learn how to do, but we don’t own the necessary tools, and there would be way too much frustrating trial and error before I would ever get something right. Now, what about auto repair? Well, many years ago—some decades ago, actually—I used to change my own oil and filter, but, once again, the lube-while-you-wait places are way too convenient, and time is way too precious. So, nowadays, I don’t even change my own wiper blades—I’m just not mechanically gifted, and I don’t know that I could ever be taught to do anything more sophisticated than checking and changing out a fuse.
Have you ever bought or sold a house? I’ll bet you dealt with a licensed real estate agent. It’s possible not to, but it’s a lot smarter and easier to do so. Have you ever gotten sued, or needed to sue somebody, or been prosecuted for anything more serious than a minor traffic offense? Have you ever been audited by the IRS? Only a fool would represent himself in court, and most of us would certainly want a pro by our side if an IRS auditor were across the table.
Perhaps not many of us have ever needed to negotiate a really big business deal. But I’ll bet every one of us has entertained at least a brief fantasy about hitting all the numbers on the lotto and wondering what we’d do if we were suddenly responsible for a zillion dollars. In any of those cases, we would be smart to learn four little words: “Talk to my agent.” We use agents to transact our business in nearly every area of our lives. Sometimes we don’t even have to show up personally—there are certain legal matters that a lawyer can take care of for us by going to court on our behalf
Now, what I’m leading up to, as you may or may not have guessed, is that every human being also has “business” to “transact” with God. This fact has perhaps been more apparently self-evident to other people in other cultures and other times than it is to us, however. It was particularly evident to our spiritual ancestors, the people of ancient Israel. They had a very concrete notion of sin, a very legalistic notion. There were relatively few subtleties or opportunities for rationalizing their behavior. But there were very clear laws about what to do and what not to do, morally and ritually. These laws governed personal behavior, domestic behavior, public and community behavior, and religious behavior. To violate any of the laws was to offend God, to dishonor the holiness of God. So the Law of Moses prescribed very specific remedies for dealing with such offenses. Some of these remedies were punitive in nature, others were symbolic and cultic. The symbolic and cultic remedies all involved some form of sacrifice, ranging from a small amount of grain—which was, in effect, a fine—to live animals: birds, sheep, goats, and cattle. There was one ritual in which the priest would confess the sins of the people over the head of a goat, and then send the goat off into the wilderness. It was thought to be carrying the sins of the people away. The most solemn and public of the animal sacrifices involved the beast being ritually slaughtered, in the Temple in Jerusalem. Once a year, on yom kippur, the Day of Atonement, the High Priest took the blood of a bull and entered the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies, the seat of God’s visible presence with His people, and offered the blood as an atonement for all the sins of all the people. He was acting as the agent of the people, doing something for them that they were not able to do for themselves. He was transacting their business with God. The Temple, of which there was only one, was more than a fancy place for the Jewish people to gather for worship. Its significance was much more profound than that. It was the sign of God’s interest in the people, and the place where the important business between God and the people was transacted.
As Christians, we know that Jesus is our high priest—our “once for all” high priest. He is also our scapegoat, bearing the sins of the people into the wilderness, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And, most significantly, he is our sacrificial victim, offering himself on the cross in atonement for our sins. When Jesus was twelve years old, St Luke tells us, his family made its annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem at the time of the Passover, one of the great sacrificial occasions that took place there in the Temple. Apparently, they were traveling as part of a large extended family group, because Mary and Joseph at first didn’t miss him when he wasn’t around as the group started back for Nazareth. But eventually they did, and they headed back into the city to search. After what were surely some frantic moments, where did they find their twelve-year old child? In the temple, carrying on a learned conversation with the teachers there. And when they gently suggested that he might have let them know of his plans, or even, you know, asked permission, his response is penetrating. Jesus says, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Now, Mary had just said, “Your father and I were looking for you,” referring to Joseph. But twelve-year old Jesus is obviously not talking about Joseph when he says he needs to be in his Father’s house. He is referring to his Heavenly Father, whose earthly house was the Temple.
Now, it would be good for us not to get bogged down trying to analyze the psychology or the human dynamics of this encounter, or try to draw a lesson in parent-child relationships, or some such, because that’s not what it’s about. To fully grasp what’s going on here, we have to look at the big picture of Jesus’ relationship with the Temple. He was, of course, a Jew. He was a member of that community for which the Temple was the place where business with God got transacted, through their agents, the priests. When Jesus was forty days old, his parents brought him where? To the temple, to offer the sacrifice required by the law. Then there’s this incident when he was twelve. On the day of his triumphal procession to the gates of Jerusalem a few days before his death, Jesus visited the temple with his disciples. Later that week he caused an uproar by driving out the money-changers from the Temple courts. And at the moment of his death on the cross, there was an earthquake, and the veil of the Temple, the curtain that shielded the Holy of Holies, the seat of God’s presence, was torn in two. In retrospect, many passages in the Old Testament that speak of the Lord’s messenger visiting the Temple have been seen by the Church as referring to the Messiah, to Jesus. It is in this broad context that we need to see this incident of twelve-year old Jesus in the Temple. It’s as if we had a retrospective glimpse of twelve-year old Babe Ruth surveying the grounds on which Yankee Stadium would be built. Jesus is in the Temple, the place of doing business with God. Our agent is staking out the territory. He’s not there yet to act on our behalf, but that time will come soon enough. In fact, the deal that Jesus, our agent, will make for us with God will render the Temple and everything it represents obsolete. As supreme High Priest and supreme sacrificial victim, Jesus will make the one necessary sacrifice, offered once for all people in all times—the sacrifice that reconciles us to his Father and ours.
Jesus was our agent, transacting our business with God, when he gave himself over to death on the cross. And he didn’t perform a service that you and I would have been capable of doing if we only had the time. He didn’t exercise a skill that we could also attain if we just read the right book or took the right class or earned the right degree. What Jesus accomplished for us, you and I are utterly incapable of doing. He cut a deal for us that we could never have cut for ourselves.
And Jesus our Agent is still out there working for us. The Jerusalem Temple was destroyed just a few decades after Jesus’ parents found him there talking to the teachers. But now the work of Christ continues in the Heavenly Temple, of which the Jerusalem Temple was a mere copy, a shadow. Christ our Agent continues to plead our case, transacting business with God on our behalf, business that we are not competent to take care of ourselves. Every time we come together to offer the Eucharist, we participate in that ongoing work. Whenever Satan accuses us in God’s presence, and says, “You’re just a pack of sinners, and you belong to me, so pack your bags for Hell,” our response is simple, and it’s a response we make at this or any other altar where the Mass is celebrated: “Talk to my agent.” Amen.