Luke 2:39-40

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

It’s amazing just how much trouble these two verses caused the early church. Actually, it’s not both of these verses, just the latter one. Tradition already associated Jesus with Nazareth and so Luke’s report of their return to Galilee and residence in Nazareth hardly raised eyebrows. Rather, it was verse 40, describing Jesus’ growth, that so vexed the church.

Why? Because to early readers it demonstrated just how human Jesus was. It was one thing, I guess, to say that he was born as we all are born, quite another to demonstrate that he was similarly and entirely human throughout his life, growing in stature and wisdom as he aged…just like every other little boy.

Perhaps if all the descriptions of Jesus were similarly down-to-earth in their emphasis on Jesus’ humanity it wouldn’t have been a problem. But there was this whole other tradition in Scripture that stressed Jesus’ divinity. Passages like John 1:1 – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” – paired with 1:14 – “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” This is another way of talking about Jesus’ incarnation – his taking on our flesh to become human – but here the emphasis is less on his ordinariness and more on his extraordinariness.

And so for nearly two centuries early church leaders argued and discussed and debated and fought and excommunicated each other and more, until finally the Emperor decided he needed more order in the church and corralled leaders from all around the growing church into a series of councils for them to figure out just what Jesus was – fully human or fully divine.

And the result? He was both. No one, quite frankly, really understood then or understands today exactly how this can be, but then and now all agreed, if not on how, at least on why: So that God in Jesus would be joined to humanity fully and completely and so that Jesus as God could redeem humanity fully and completely. The Incarnation, as Christians confess it regularly in the Nicene Creed, is one of the great mysteries of the faith that reminds us of how completely God is committed to us and how confident we can be that God loves us and redeems us.

Truth be told, I don’t think Luke had any of this in mind when we penned this short verse. Instead, I think he just wanted to tell his readers how Jesus got to Nazareth and that as he grew up he continued to enjoy God’s favor and blessing. And in the end I suppose that’s enough for me.

Prayer: Dear God, nurture in us faith to trust that even what we don’t understand about your work in Jesus we know is nevertheless done out of love for us and all the world. In Jesus’ name, Amen.