a sermon based upon Luke 2:39-52
The Gospels of Matthew & Luke both begin with the Christmas story – Jesus’ birth. The Nativity… shepherds and angels, wise men from the East, and so forth. Every year we hear again about Mary & Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, where Jesus is born in a barn, swaddled in cloth & laid in a manger, like a homeless family because there was no room for them in the inn. And then we hear (as we did last Sunday), about the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt -- seeking asylum from King Herod’s terrorism… like refugees by the millions still do today. Apparently, there was some serious trauma in Jesus’ earliest years!
But then Matthew jumps ahead in his Gospel and picks up Jesus’ life-story at the point of his encounter with John, the Baptist, when Jesus was 30-years old or so. That’s the point where the Gospels of Mark and John also begin: Jesus as an adult, launching his movement (his ministry) in the public eye.
It’s as though Jesus’ childhood & teenage years could be ignored, omitted from the story, as somehow irrelevant to his adult faith.
The omission from the Gospel record of Jesus’ "growing up years" – what life was like for Jesus at home with Mary & Joseph between his birth stories and his adult baptism – has led some folks to dismiss the character of Joseph (Jesus’ Daddy) as irrelevant, invisible, almost forgotten.
This past Monday, in our Bible Study, Lillian Banas pointed out that Jesus’ father – Mary’s husband Joseph – is never mentioned again the Bible after the Christmas stories are over. It’s almost like Joseph gets packed away with the angels & the ornaments until next year. (!) She brought with her a little wooden-tree ornament with the phrase: "Joseph, not forgotten." Well, Lillian, for you (and others who have the same concern), this Sunday and next, we’ll talk about how Jesus grew up like a "normal kid" with his Mama Mary and his Papa Joseph and his younger brothers & sisters...
As I see it, the real issue is the Gospel writers’ ignoring of Jesus’ childhood & teenage years – leaving them out as though they are irrelevant to Jesus’ adult faith.
Unfortunately, the church has done that to children for a long time: sending them away until they grow up. Making them wait until they are older to take communion (for example), or wait until confirmation age before they could be baptized, or wait until they are all grown up to make their testimony of faith and join the "adult" church as full members. Yeah, now they count!
I’m glad that our congregation says "nonsense" to such traditions. Kids are important parts of the life of the church -- not just "the future of the church," but right now! Here at Alpena’s first and oldest church (where I was nurtured in my own growing-up faith), we believe that young people are worth investing in! We hire Shelby Sexton as our nursery attendant/childcare, and Jeffrey Mindock to provide both a Sunday School and an after-school kids’ fun club on Wednesdays. We hope in time to grow a youth group again – a Pilgrim Fellowship with new activities. We’re part of the Alpena Community Ecumenical summer VBS.
Of the four Gospels, only Luke concerns himself with the childhood of Jesus.
Since stories of Jesus’ youth are so few, I’m not surprised that most folks believe that only his birth (at Christmas) and then his adult re-birth (at the point of baptism) are what launched Jesus into ministry. Well, today we have heard "the minority report": where Luke gives us a charming picture of a child… growing up in a godly family, performing everything according to the Laws of God (as they were then understood), assured that God’s blessing was upon them.
Whenever we baptize an infant (which I have done three times in these past four-&-a-half years), the parents pledge to raise that child "in the nurture and admonition of the Lord." "Admonition" is a big word that simply means the teachings, principles, & discipline of Christianity. It’s what we TELL our kids about right and wrong: we "admonish" them.
"Nurture," on the other hand, is not quite so direct. The image is one of NOURISHING -- like a plant -- so that one may grow naturally. Nurture is in the environment of the home, the food and shelter, the daily routines and confronting challenges.
I have to believe that Mary & Joseph faithfully admonished Jesus (teaching him right from wrong, teaching him Bible stories, teaching him his social responsibilities) and that they also did a good job of nurturing Jesus, for Luke tells us in the opening verse of today’s reading: "the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God (God’s approval) was upon him."
Every parent must wonder: how did Mary & Joseph manage to see Jesus through the trials and temptations of childhood? Is there any insight for us today from this brief glimpse into Jesus’ home-life?
Well, for one thing, our passage goes on to say that "every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when Jesus was 12 years old, they went up as usual..." That is to say, the family HABITUALLY took part in the religious celebrations of their people. That is, not only did Mary & Joseph live their home-life according to the Laws of the Lord, they were involved in the religious life of their local congregation & kinfolk. They were active "members", not just names on the roster.
The group of travelers from Nazareth to Jerusalem included "their relatives and friends," who were (likewise) faithful, habitual, religious folk. Jesus was surrounded by people he knew, people who went on "pilgrimage" together.
There is something memorable about going on church outings, like we did years ago in Pilgrim Fellowship, meeting kids from other Association churches in their towns.
Traveling out of town with one’ church s family is fairly frequent in some of our families. But to go on an overnight trip with one’s church family -- with one’s youth group instead of one’s parents -- that’s out-of-the-ordinary. Church trips are designed to be memorable. (And according to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus did it when he was 12 years old!) Just so you know: this year, we will organize five or six such day-trips for our church members of all ages. I’m so looking forward to it! In addition, there is a Regional Youth Event next summer at Elmhurst College for our UCC teenagers, which can help get them involved with Jesus!
It seems to me that the way Mary & Joseph "lived their faith" must have seemed interesting and exciting to young Jesus. Otherwise, if it had been a dull drudgery (a resistant, begrudging "obedience") that brought Jesus to the Temple, you’d bet he’d be the first one tugging at his parents’ sleeves to get on! Get along HOME! Instead, Luke tells us that his parents found him "sitting among the teachers of the Temple, listening to them & asking questions."
And for a boy of 12, a 5th grader, Luke says that Jesus showed amazing understanding in his answers.
Frankly, I like the fact that Jesus is portrayed as asking hard questions, not just giving smart answers.
Our young people should be holding our feet to the fire, making us adults live up to our ideals, raising their doubts for us to discuss, and asking the tough questions. That’s more like the precocious Jesus I meet as I read Luke’s story!
Our passage ends with the statement that "Jesus increased in wisdom & stature, growing in size and in years, in divine and human favor." That’s a good report about him -- like our kids bringing home all "A’s", showing good citizenship, well-liked -- but what does it have to do with us? How can we apply what’s said about Jesus to any of us?
First, it seems to me that Jesus went through the same stages of growth and development that all of us must go through as we mature: increasing in knowledge, and in size & in years, just as our kids do.
In his first year of life, Baby Jesus was swaddled in cloth diapers, as were we all… nursing on milk. The pictures of "Madonna & Child" are probably as well known a Christian symbol as are the Crosses of Jesus’ execution.
In that first year of life, in addition to feeding and sleeping, Jesus would have to master the basics of perceiving the world around him… … making sense of it, manipulating it through trial and error -- some clumsy efforts at locomotion (learning to stand on his own two legs, learning to walk) -- and interacting with the people around him. Can you imagine saying "goo-goo & gaa-gaa" to God? Can you imagine changing Jesus’ diapers? Did Jesus cry? If he was a normal baby, I’m sure he did cry!
By age two, he would be developing the basics of a spoken language. Aramaic was the native tongue in Middle Eastern society (the language Mary & Joseph would normally speak at home in Nazareth). Formal biblical Hebrew was used in religious settings, social elites like Herod would have used koine Greek (as did Luke in writing his Gospel), & the Romans (the occupying forces and governors) used Latin. As a refugee family in Egypt (as Matthew tells it), Jesus may have heard Coptic or another African dialect during those formative early years. (Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Coptic… It makes me wonder: how’s a kid gonna learn to talk when five different languages are being blabbered at him in different social settings? To be bi-lingual is hard enough; imagine five!)
By age three, Jesus would be imitating his parents. As Jesus got older, his curiosity would be aroused by a wider circle of things. By four, he would differentiate between himself and others, coming to some rudimentary idea of a self-identity. By five, Jesus would have learned to modify and perfect the clumsy skills of childhood such that he would feel good about being "so grown up." Like a normal kid, Jesus would learn to put things back in their place & help around the house. He would grow in wisdom & stature...
But then, you know all that... I mean: most of you have raised children of your own already. Patty & I don’t have any kids; we have cats. So, what do I really know about children?
For me, it’s been 60 years since I was a toddler, fifty since I was a teen; for some of you, maybe several decades have passed since you were a "young’un." But the process of maturation – which includes spiritual & intellectual growth (discovery, experimentation, trial & error) -- does not stop until we have decided that we have learned enough. Jesus grew, and (in my opinion) that’s a key to our discipleship: don’t quit growing, learning! I got that ethic from my own parents, growing up here in Alpena. In fact, on my mother’s headstone -- alongside Dodi Lance’s birth-date and death-date -- is the epitaph inscription: "a lifelong learner". It keeps us young.
The second thing I notice about Luke’s references to Jesus as a child (and as a self-absorbed 12-year-old, in particular, who thought nothing of the anxiety of his parents as he enjoyed himself… hanging out in the Temple) makes Jesus seem more human than most other stories about him in our Gospels.
I’m sure that he was a gifted child, but Jesus was not abnormal. The breakdown of communication between Jesus and his parents (that is clearly noted in this story) should give consolation to the parents of our own teen-agers, knowing that Mary & Joseph went through the same trials and testing. There is something very normal about how Jesus’ parents react to his absence, their concern to find him, and their relief that he was safely engaged with the priests and elders back at the Temple.
By the end of the story, despite the break-down of communication between Jesus and his parents, he leaves the Temple with them, returns to Nazareth, where (I quote) "he was obedient to them." That’s nice to hear, isn’t it? Sister Miriam Theresa Winter translates that line to say: "He went home with them to Nazareth, where he caused them no further concern." Yeah, I’m sure! ( :) )
The point is, in the end, Jesus was not a youth in rebellion. He learned a lot from Mary & Joseph, and he stayed with his family until the beginning of his adult ministry, at age 30. (!) By that time, I wonder if Mary & Joseph were beginning to ask themselves if he would EVER move out, find a girl, or get a job!
And I appreciate that Luke tells us that Mary, his mother -- even though she admits to having not understood what Jesus was saying to them -- nevertheless did not forget his words. (Isn’t that just like a mother!?) She "treasured all these things in her heart."
I believe that Luke learned of this childhood event directly from Mary. Long after Jesus’ crucifixion, when Mary thinks back to the little boy she once knew, she says: "He was favored by God & popular with others." I like that. (I hope that will be said of me, too.)
To me, Jesus does not appear to have been a divine prodigy, immune from the twists and turns of childhood and adolescence. He went through every stage of growth -- in size, in comprehension, in social development -- just as we go through them. But he was aided by (1) the stability of a godly family and (2) by the embrace of a religious community. And I suspect it is the nurture & admonition he received in those formative years, as much as his divine birth or the preaching of John the Baptist, which set the course of Jesus’ ministry.
I feel that way, not only because Luke tells it that way, but because I lived my own faith journey within a family like that...My family considered Christianity something you did every day of your life, where involvement in church traditions was habitual, and where private prayer and public worship was an exciting, creative vehicle for the expression of thoughts and emotions that would otherwise stay pent up inside.
I loved the extra dimension of meaning that church gave me and the deeper friendships that the youth group encouraged. There was just enough drama -- opportunities for stage acting, singing and dancing, dramatic reading, creative writing, going places and seeing things, and interacting with adults one-on-one -- to hook me into church-life already at age 12. In other words, I felt that I knew what Jesus was going through!
That’s why I knew (by high school) that I wanted to become a preacher.
Those childhood memories of family activities and church-experiences in my formative years is why I sing in the choir and write songs, why I love to go on pilgrimages and church outings. That’s the kind of upbringing that Jesus had, and we can still do it!
Those of us who have grown up in Christ from the "get-go" -- we, for whom Jesus’ perspective about God and the world is in our very marrow -- may not need such a radical remedial intervention as did the Apostle Paul… who had to be knocked from his high horse and had to start over from the ground up... made temporarily blind, so that he could learn to see, who had to be broken to be made whole, lost so that he could be found.
No, our spiritual journey may not be a dramatic conver-sion like the one that turned "Saul" of Tarsus into "Paul" the Apostle -- an all-or-nothing transformation from persecutor to a promoter.
But just because we don’t need a radical conversion like the Apostle Paul did in order to "come to Christ" (since we’ve always been with him since our earliest childhood) doesn’t mean that we have no faith! -- D’ya get what I’m saying?
Those of us who have no conversion "moment" -- no Saint Paul-like "born again" testimony -- might actually be even one better than the "born agains," because we have the model of none other than Jesus Christ himself -- growing up in the Lord, increasing in God’s favor, gaining in understanding and in stature, in fellowship with all people -- as our guide! He didn’t have to be "born again" (didn’t have to start over), because Mary & Joseph got it right the first time!
Jesus grew up like a normal kid... and God was with him, and God loved him... and it’s true for you, too! That’s the whole point of Jesus’ Gospel!
With a model like that, friends -- and with faith in the Holy Spirit’s ability to guide us into all understanding -- let us continue to be faithful in our homes, raising our children in the nurture & admonition of the Lord, and gathering (habitually!) as a church community to celebrate God’s coming in our midst.