41 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43 When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44 Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” 49 He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he said to them. 51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

One time I received a note from a relative who was researching our family genealogy. She stated that we “share a great-grandmother.” I think that means we are “second cousins” but when one starts counting relatives and using terms like “first cousin once removed,” things can get rather confusing. A Dakota friend shared with me that in her tribe’s traditional understanding, one’s mother’s sisters are not considered simply as “aunts,” but rather as other mothers. Therefore, the children of her mother’s sisters are also her brothers and sisters. The same is true of the brothers of her father who are also her dads. The Dakota circle of relatives or extended family is known as their “tiospaye.”

The tiospaye of Jesus stands front and center in today’s Gospel reading. As it happens, however, there is also confusion in terms of describing the degree of relationship between his relatives. For example, reference is made in other places to Jesus’ “brothers” (Luke 8:16). The Greek word for “brothers” is adelphoiand Christians disagree about how the word is to be understood. Therefore, there is no consensus about whether these men are brothers, cousins, half-brothers, or stepbrothers of Jesus.

Every year Jews were expected to travel to Jerusalem for the three great feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth was about sixty-five miles from Jerusalem, necessitating a foot journey of several days. Travel was dangerous and so many chose to travel with extended family members and neighbors for safety. However, one cannot help but imagine the fun a child would have on these camping excursions with friends and understand his parents’ assumption that their son was traveling with neighbors or relatives on the return trip.

When Joseph and Mary discover that their son is missing, they return to Jerusalem to find him in the Temple conversing with the teachers of God’s Law. A panicked Mary questions her pre-teen son about why he would put them through such an ordeal. Contemporary parental ears cannot help but hear the tone of a smart aleck in Jesus’ response as well as a subtle put down to his stepfather, Joseph: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” One can imagine Mary biting her lip as she flashes back some thirteen years ago to confusion about becoming pregnant while yet a virgin and hearing the Angel Gabriel announce: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Luke 1:35).

As son of God, Jesus belongs in Jerusalem tending to his heavenly Father’s business; as son of Mary, however, he returns to Nazareth and submits obediently to his mother and earthly father. This same dynamic is sung about in another part of Scripture:Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:5-9). Indeed, let the same mind be in us.

Moving into the Neighborhood

For Sunday, 27 December 2020: John 1:1-18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

Today’s reading from the Prologue of the Gospel of John is both theologically majestic and profound. Opening with the words “in the beginning” in the same way as the creation account in Genesis starts, the incarnate Word of God is linked with the very act of creation. The One who made all things in the beginning now comes among the created order as the commencement of a new creation of those redeemed by God: “the Word become flesh and lived among us.” In recent years, this verse has received much attention and caused delight through Eugene Peterson’s colorful paraphrase in The Message: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”

As social creatures, human beings have lived communal lives in various “neighborhoods” throughout time. Some tribal people of the Great Plains in North America lived nomadic lives in portable settlements allowing them to follow the great herds of bison which provided their sustenance. Others such as the Mandan people of North Dakota developed permanent agrarian villages along the banks of the Missouri River where they lived in large, round earth lodges and grew corn, beans, pumpkins, and sunflowers. Still others, such as my Potawatomi ancestors of the Great Lakes region moved seasonally in camps to harvest maple sugar, wild rice, and berries.

Jesus was a member of the house of Judah, one of the twelve tribes of Israel. His people lived in small villages such as Bethlehem and Nazareth but also in larger cities such as Jerusalem in the Middle East. Ironically, there is a certain sadness in the stately account of God coming among us, of Christ’s “moving into the neighborhood.” The narrator notes that “he was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to his own but his own people did not accept him.” Other translations render it: “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (RSV), or “he came to his own people, but they didn’t want him” (MSG). One quickly gets the picture that rejection is part of Jesus’ human experience from the beginning.

This reality calls to mind scriptures in other books of the Bible when Jesus is rebuffed or snubbed. At that first Christmas, when Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, “she wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). One time in Nazareth where he had grown up, people took offense at his teaching. In response, Jesus said: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house” (Mark 6:4). Clearly, those who have experienced rejection while attempting to do good are in remarkable company. God in Christ understands.

On the other hand, the narrator also adds to the reality and pain of the possibility of rejecting the incarnate Word of God this proviso: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” Phillips Brooks, nineteenth century bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, must have been thinking of these passages when he wrote his well-known poem that has come down to us as the Christmas Carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” One of the stanzas reveals:

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!

So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.

No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,

Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.

May Christ, the incarnate Word of God, be welcome in the hearts and neighborhoods of people from every nation, race, tribe, and language. In the words of my Potawatomi ancestors: Mno gishget Jesos egi nigit! (Merry Christmas!)



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The Rt. Rev. Michael Smith is an Assistant Bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, an Assisting Bishop in Navajoland and a former bishop of North Dakota. He is in an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.