a sermon based upon Amos 5:21-24, & Micah 6:6-8,
and Zechariah 7:8-11, also referring to Luke 2:41-51
Last Sunday we heard the story from Luke’s Gospel about Jesus (at age 12) visiting Jerusalem with his parents. That was the time Mary and Joseph lost track of their 12-year old among the Passover crowd as they were returning home to Nazareth. They eventually found Jesus three days later"sitting among the teachers of the Temple, listening to them & asking questions."
When Mary & Joseph located him, (Luke tells us) they were astonished…(!) And his mother said to Jesus, "Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously." To which Jesus replied: "Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?"
I’m sure from Jesus’ perspective --since he knew all along where he was and what he was doing --there was no need for worry. (!) He could take care of himself. He was, after all, 12-years-old! It was only his Mom & Dad (who had left him behind) who had the problem. Like, Duh!
When Mary said: "Your father and I have been looking for you anxiously"…Jesus replied: "Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?"… So, who’s his Daddy?
Jesus’s claim to be in his Father’s house--doing his father’s business --brings into question his ultimate family allegiance to Joseph, the carpenter, in whose house Jesus had grown up!
You see, if learning Torah and disputing with the priests is Jesus’s true business–and (Luke tells usthat) for a 6th grader, a boy of 12: he showed amazing understanding in his answers –there is clearly a snub to his Earthly Father (Joseph) in favor of Jesus’ loyalty to his Heavenly Father (God).
Last Sunday, I was told about one little boy who knew about adoption because his father ran the Child & Family Services. He said that Joseph was Jesus’ "foster" father.
We are told that Mary and Joseph "did not understand the saying which he spoke to them." But I’ll bet they felt it –first, in their anxiety regarding where he was, and then in their relief to have found him, safe; and then (again) in the amazement of the teachers at the quality of Jesus’ questions; the astonishment of his parents at how he had chosen to spend his time; and, finally,the lack of anxiety on Jesus’ part… I mean, he says (with non-chalance): "Where else would I be but in my Father’s House!?"
Jesus seems to have known what his life was all about…
Jesus has discovered what he was meant to do.
It’s been said that there are two great "beginnings" in the life of every person who has left their mark upon history. There is the day that they were born into the world… and there is the day when they discover WHY they were born into the world.
I believe this journey to Jerusalem --these three days in the Temple, during the Passover, when Jesus was 12 --marks the moment when Jesus made that great discovery.
His bold questioning of the teachers and priests, and the kinds of answers he gave them, will be "unpacked" as Jesus’ adult Gospel takes shape in the decades to come.
The significance of this experience in Jerusalem --which kept Jesus occupied for three days doing his Father’s business in his Father’s house --needs a bit of background to fully comprehend.
The Passover was the greatest annual festival of the Jews. These were their high "holy"days! It was the time when the Jews remembered (and still to this day remember) how the hand of God delivered the slaves from their bondage in the land of Egypt. It was one of three "obligatory" festivals (the others were Pentecost and Tabernacles) to which every adult male Jew who lived within 15 miles of Jerusalem was bound by custom (by biblical law) to attend.
But such was the sanctity and high regard of this festival, that Jews from all over the ancient world made an effort to gather in Jerusalem to celebrate it, even if it meant saving for a lifetime just to celebrate one Passover in the Holy City.
It’s almost 100 miles from Nazareth to Jerusalem. On foot, the slow caravan would take almost a week on its journey to the City. All the time, the pilgrims would be thinking about the story:
The Passover night in Egypt, the Exodus under Moses, how God delivered the Hebrew slaves, gave them the Torah/Law (the Ten Commandments), and led them through the wilderness for 40 years until they entered (and conquered and settled in) the Promised Land.Jesus came to Jerusalem with excitement!
On the day of preparation for the Passover (seder) supper, the lambs (which would be cooked and served as the main dish in the ritual meal) had to be slaughtered. I guess it’s not unlike our American Thanksgiving… which necessitates millions of turkeys to be killed and dressed for our family dinner.
According to the Exodus story, it was the blood of the lamb that each Hebrew family ate for dinner on that first "Passover" night which was used to mark the doorway of the house, in-dicating (to the angel of death) that this home could be "passed over". In other words, the blood of the lamb" saved" them.
All well and good, I suppose, since the slave family had a good, solid, protein-rich last supper before launching out the very next day to escape from Pharaoh. Eating a lamb dinner would have been a luxury for the poor slave family! And the fact that the mark of blood on the doorway indicated to the night-killers that death had already struck this household, was an added benefit.This was the basic meaning of the annual ritual.
However, the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem made a great deal more of it. The priests had a tradition of "blood sacrifice" quite apart from the Exodus story, where by the priest would accepta perfectly innocent and unblemished lamb as a "substitute"for the person who gave it, as an "atonement"for sin. In other words, when the priests killed the lamb, they said it took the place of the person’s sin, or debt, or trespass against God. By the blood of the innocent animal that they slaughtered, the petitioner (they said) was freed from the penalty of their sin…forgiven by God (Hallelujah!).
Those two traditions were blended by the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day such that every lamb that was going to be served for "seder supper" on Passover had to be slaughtered in the Temple courts. They said that the lamb had to be "sacrificed", not just butchered, because the blood belonged to God.
The Jews identified the blood of a living creature with its life. After all, everyone knows that when the blood flows away, the life flows away, too. Since life belongs to God, the priests insisted that the animal’s blood belongs to God.
So, Jesus’ father, Joseph, along with his 12-year-old son, would have taken a lamb –a living animal; a little, white, bleating lamb --to the Temple to be slaughtered, so that the blood might be offered to God, and the meat then given back to the family for their Passover dinner. Jesus would have witnessed the blood-letting, and the ritual sacrifice which accompanied it.
According to the Mishnah (Pesahim 5.5, Danby’s translation), which are the code of instructions regarding Jewish law: "The priests stood in rows, and in their hands were basins of silver and gold. …The basins had no bases; lest the priests should set them down and the blood congeal. An Israelite slaughtered his own offering, and the priests caught the blood. The priest passed the basin to his fellow, and he to his fellow, each receiving a full basin and giving back an empty one. The priest nearest to the altar tossed the blood in one action against the base of the altar."
What Jesus witnessed would have been going on all day. One basin of blood after another; a flood of slaughtered animals. According to the Jewish historian Josephus (War of the Jews, 6.9:3), during the reign of Nero, Jerusalem’s governor Cestius took a count of the number of lambs slaughtered at the Temple in order to show the Emperor how many Jews attended the Passover festival that year. The number of slain sheep was 256,500. (!) Now, if each lamb was to feed a family of four, that’s a million!
Can you visualize what Jesus saw? Can you imagine the odor and reek of blood? The marble pavement of the Temple, just outside the Holy of Holies, slippery with the blood of the lambs? Can you see it? Can you hear it? Hundreds of thousands of worshippers--desiring to draw near to God --slitting the throat of the lamb they had brought, and allowing the blood to drain away into the basin; the long line of priests leading to the altar, with bowls of blood passing from hand to hand, until they were dashed against the base of the altar…! This, they said, is how God has designed it, for the good of the nation.
The Passover festival was intended to remind the Jewish people of liberation…and to draw people closer to God, their Deliverer. But what Jesus experienced at the Temple was a vast slaughterhouse…or a butcher’s shop! In the young mind of Jesus, disillusionment began. There was something wrong.
He had come to the Passover festival in Jerusalem expecting to encounter God as never before… but now this! How could a flood of blood –animals sacrificed with ritual solemnity –bring people’s hearts closer to God? How would anyone’s wounded conscience, contrite heart, or seeking mind find a God of compassion, justice, & love… in this bloody mess?
Had not the Prophet Amos already sorted out these things more than 700 years earlier, when he said (on God’s behalf):
"I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings… I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts, I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs. To the melody of your harps, I will not listen! But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
(Those are God’s priorities, not blood-splattered altars!)
Unfortunately, the peopleof Israel did not accept the prophet’s corrective words back then…and their kingdom was soon destroyed by the Assyrians, eliminated from history.
I’m sure Jesus’ mind also went back to the words of Micah (6:7-8):"With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?…He has showed you, Oman, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? But to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God."
It had been more than 500 years since Micah made that statement, and still Jesus saw hundreds of thousands of lambs being slaughtered in God’s name… burnt offerings, and rivers of blood. What he did not see in Jerusalem, nor in the Temple, was the passion for justice, the love of kindness, and the willingness to walk humbly with God that the Lord required.
And then there was what the prophet Zechariah had said, when the Jewish Exiles were about to return from Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem: "Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy each to his brother, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor. And let none of you devise evil against his brother in your heart!" But the people refused to hearken, and turned a stubborn shoulder to the prophet, and stopped their ears that they might not hear.
Oh, yes….I can see why Jesus wanted to speak with the priests and teachers in the Temple! I can just imagine the hard questions that Jesus raised with them. His disillusionment with the "blood sacrifice" system that he saw in the Temple –together with his expectation of social justice, kindness and humility that he knew (from the prophets) was God’s will–would challenge the religious establishment to the core! I can see why they would be amazed at the kind of answers Jesus would give, so unlike the scribes & Pharisees & teachers of the law. But they probably discounted him, since Jesus was only 12.
I think Jesus suddenly discovered that the whole parapher-nalia of sacrifice was a vast irrelevance to God, and the whole apparatus of religious law a barrier to God’s loving embrace.Somewhere, Jewish religion had gone wrong, and had lost its way. I think Jesus wanted to rescue his native religion from the shallows and byways in which it had gotten lost. He wanted people to know God as he did: a loving Creator and Sustainer, whose desire was for the flourishing of the world… a world which God loved, intimately & passionately. Jesus wanted the priests and teachers to know God like he did: as a father, who cared for them and for all people; one who was steadfast & trustworthy.
I suspect it was both the idealism of his youth, and the disillusionment of his experience during Passover, that revealed to Jesus what he was meant to do. It is as though a voice said: "The people seek me, and cannot find me under the weight of religion, rituals, and rules. It is your task to tell them about me, to show them who I really am, and to bring them to my love."I believe Jesus realized his life’s work was to bring people to God. His task was clear. He knew why he had come.
May we, who are his followers, pursue that same task with the same passion as Our Lord, Jesus Christ, did in his life-time. May we bring people to God, as known through Jesus’Gospel, in our community, in our day, through our church. I think we can.