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"When Jesus Came of Age

(a sermon based upon Luke 2:39-52 & 3:21-23

Among the many chapters that speak of Jesus’ life in the four Gospels in our Bible, we have only one small glimpse into Jesus’ childhood. Luke lets us see what Jesus was like at age 12… when he created anxiety for his Mom & Dad by becoming separated from them as they visited the big City of Jerusalem.

Now, before we go into that aspect of Jesus’ lifestory, let’s be honest: what were YOU like when you were twelve? It’s not an easy age… It’s a time of growth spurts, new hormones, a pre-teen’s curiosity, stirrings of adolescent idealism, somewhat self-centered…

What were you like as you came of age? In what ways are you still the same today; and in what ways have you changed? I’ll bet there is a little of Jesus’ thoughtless behavior, as well as some of Mary & Joseph’s anxiety, in each of us. Sometimes our “child” comes out; sometimes we let our “inner parent” take over. In any case, we have (all of us) had to “come of age” at some time or another.

I juxtapose the story of Jesus at age 12 (in what he calls his “Father’s house”) with the one where Jesus is baptized at age 30, and God calls him his “beloved Son.” You’ll notice the parental relationship in both of those statements – one from Jesus about his Father, the other from God about his Son. I think that (taken together), we get a sense of Jesus “coming of age” in relation to God.

In ancient Jewish culture, boys “came of age” at 12 years old. Even today, that is the time for their “bar-mitzvah” (or a girl’s “bat-mitzvah”) the public ceremony that indicates they are now fully part of the “covenant community” – they are no longer children any more… but young adults, responsible for their own future growth.

Luke tells us that Jesus accompanied his family on their pilgrimage south to Jerusalem to attend the Passover holiday. From Nazareth in the Galilee, this would have been a journey of over 60 miles – on foot it might take four or five days each way! For us today, a trip like this would be like going “downstate” for a ball game and shopping, or going out-of-state to visit relatives. For a 12-year-old, a trip like this would be an adventure!

The purpose of the Passover festival was to celebrate the story of God’s liberation of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. (We might think of it like a Fourth of July holiday celebrating America’s Independence.) Every year, the Jewish people would put on parades, special worship services, and hold Seder suppers to re-tell the stories of Moses liberating the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from Pharaoh’s cruel slavery in Egypt. They would celebrate the founding of the nation of Israel, the receiving of Torah (the Ten Commandments) from God, and their journey to the Promised Land.

In Jesus’ day, because the Romans now ruled over them, some people in Judea & Jerusalem felt like they were slaves again -- (!) -- slaves of the Roman Empire instead of the Egyptians or Babylonians. The Passover holiday kept alive the hopes that a “new Moses” might arise among them, and lead them to expel the Romans! (!) A new Exodus under a new Moses -- maybe even a new warrior savior like Joshua (whose name in Hebrew “Yeshua” was Jesus’ name, too!).

Like every good holiday, then, Passover was about the past and the present, and pointed to a changed future… a new possibility.

Since people from Galilee traveled to and from Jerusalem in large groups -- either inland through Samar

ia or along the Jordan River valley for safety (like a “wagon train” in early America going West through Indian Territory) -- Mary & Joseph would assume that young Jesus was somewhere among their fellow-travelers when they began the long trek home. However, when they could not find him along the trail, they rushed back to Jerusalem, looking for Jesus that day and the next. (!) When they finally came to the Temple, there sat Jesus… a 12-year-old boy among the religious leaders and teachers: scribes and Pharisees, and perhaps even a priest or two. (That’s the painting I showed the children this morning.)

Jesus was asking questions of them, and answering questions that they posed in return. Luke tells us that everyone was amazed at his understanding and his answers. (When I preached about this text last year, you may recall that I suggested that Jesus was perhaps questioning the necessity of sacrificial slaughter … as well as the many “rituals and rule-keepers” he encountered there in the Temple, so very different from how he related to God at home in Galilee.)[1]

Be that as it may, Jesus’ mother pulled him aside and gave him the kind of lecture you or I might expect: “Son! Why have you treated us so?” she began.

“Son”…? Mary might as well have called him “child!” Her tone as much as her words would remind this young adolescent that he wasn’t grown up yet! “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.”

(We’ve been worried sick! We’ve been looking everywhere for you!)

Jesus replied, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” … “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

This reply tells us a lot about Jesus. Luke wants us to know that, by the age of 12, Jesus saw God in “Fatherly” terms. He saw himself as God’s child, fully at home in God’s house… the Temple.

We also see that Jesus was already deeply curious – as demonstrated by his questions to the religious scholars. And he was also deeply thoughtful – as demonstrated by his wise answers to their questions. Apparently Jesus took his bar-mitzvah (his coming of age) quite seriously. As a young adult, Jesus felt more at home with God, his Father, than with Mary & Joseph, his real-life family of origin. That’s what Luke wants us (his readers) to get from the story.

But such is not the perspective of Mary & Joseph! The Temple is not the house of Jesus’ father; that was up in Nazareth in Galilee! That was where his mother and father were trying to get Jesus to return when they lost him, three days earlier. Like most parents of teenagers (I suppose), Mary and Joseph seem completely baffled by his irresponsible behavior and his (frankly) rude explanation of it.

Jesus went back to Nazareth with them. The next 18 years were summarized by Luke as follows: “He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.” In other words, Jesus matured in years and in wisdom, and he maintained good relations with God & with his neighbors. (That’s a pretty good report card!)[2]

Let’s move on now to the second Scripture reading for this morning, the story of Jesus’ baptism.

While Jesus was maturing in Nazareth, his relative John -- the son of Aunt Elizabeth & Uncle Zechariah, only six months older than Jesus -- was also coming of age down South in Judea.

As the son of a priest, we would expect John to follow in the footsteps of his esteemed father. John should be preparing to serve God in the Temple in Jerusalem: offering blood sacrifices, officiating at festivals, performing rituals, and “keeping kosher” according to the rules of his religion. One of the rituals he would oversee at the edge of the Temple courtyard were the washings, the cleansings: baptism.

Now, as Christians, we have narrowly defined “baptism” as the initiation rite of new Christians. We say that we are “sealed with the sacrament of baptism as a sign of our inclusion in the Body of Christ, the covenant community we call “church”. It is a ritual that dates back to Jesus’ own baptism, by John, in the Jordan River. I’m not here to dispute that Christian understanding of “baptism.”

But “baptism” was already well established in Judaism. First, it was necessary for anyone who wished to “convert” to Judaism -- from a pagan background (a foreigner, a gentile, any goyiim/ non-Jew). By baptism, a non-Jew would begin the process of becoming Jewish. Frankly, very few people have ever done this, because of the many other customs and cultural traditions and rule-keeping that it entails.

But another kind of “baptism” was much more frequent and considered essential by the people at the Temple in Jerusalem. It was a ritual cleansing -- a purification -- in a bath specially constructed to be used by any “pilgrim” who came from a distance to the Temple to worship.

Because people in foreign lands, with different cultures were assumed to be “unclean”, the pilgrim’s contact with these people would render them equally “unclean”. Even people in neighboring Samaria, and from the Galilee, were suspect. This baptism (performed at the Temple) was intended to ceremonially “wash off” that contamination from the world they came from, so that they might present themselves to God as “clean” people.

Since Jewish baptism was either (1) a ritual of purification at the Temple, or (2) a sign of conversion from some other religion, do you see how shocking it must have been for the old priest Zechariah’s son, John, to burst onto the scene when he turned 30…? preaching and performing baptisms – not in Jerusalem, not in the Temple, and not in the specially constructed ceremonial baths for that purpose – but out in the desert wilderness down at the Jordan River, miles away.

(Let’s go down to the river to pray; talking about that good ol’ way, and who’s to wear the golden crown – Good Lord, show me the way!)

Can you imagine the disruption of the status quo, when John the Baptist began performing ritual cleansings – not in the private, holy-sanctioned baths near the Temple, overseen by Levite officials & priests – but in public, out in the countryside, down by the riverside! ?

Can you imagine the gossip getting back to Elizabeth and Zechariah (if they still were alive when John turned 30): he’s wearing the garments of a beggar! … rough camel-hair and a leather belt, instead of the holy robes of a proper priest! And his food? Not fine feasting on barbecued lamb, like the rest of the priests who serve at the altar, no… dried locusts (grasshoppers!) with wild honey. (Yuck!)

John the Baptist’s departure from both his family’s role in the community, as well as from proper Temple ritual, suggests to me that John was publicly protesting against the religious establishment that his father had so faithfully served.

What they needed was “repentance” -- a change in orientation, not location; a change in attitude, a change of mind, a change in heart! That is what “repentance” means! (“Metanoia” in Greek) Turn around; go in a new direction. (“Turn back, O Man, forswear thy foolish ways!”) Luke tells us that “John went into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Luke 3:3)

What used to be available only through a ceremonial bath in a holy Temple, overseen by Priests and Levites, was now being made available to all. Whosoever you are, whom the Lord calls! (ALL!)[3]

In Brian D. McLaren’s book “We Make the Road by Walking”[4], he says: According to John [the Baptist], the identity that mattered

wasn’t one you could inherit through tribe, nationality, or religion – such as being descendants of Abraham, for example [with the right bloodline, rooting for the right team, belonging to the right clique, or “in crowd”, or social set; of the right race, in the right church! No…] The identity that mattered most was one you created through your actions… by sharing your wealth, your possessions, and your food with those in need; by refusing to participate in the corruption so common in government and business; by treating others fairly and respectfully; and by not being driven by greed [materialism, consumerism, or status].

One word summarized John’s message: repent, which meant “re-think everything,” or “question your assumptions,” or “have a deep turn-around in your thinking and values.” His baptism of repentance symbolized being immersed in a flowing river of love, in solidarity not just with the clean, the privileged, the superior “us” – but with everyone, everywhere. (unquote)

Like we heard last Sunday from the Prophet Isaiah, John the Baptist issued a powerful warning: God would soon intervene to confront wrong and set things right, and the status quo would soon come to an end.[5]

Crowds started coming to him -- streaming out of the City into the countryside, into the wilderness -- to be baptized by the Baptist. John’s “protest movement” grew -- and with it, expectations… and hope!

Maybe John was the long-awaited liberator, like Moses and Joshua, who would lead the people to freedom. Maybe, like David, John would institute a new kingdom and bring a new golden age.

But the Baptist quickly squelched those expectations. “I’m not the one you are waiting for,” he said. “I’m only preparing the way for someone who is coming after me. He will really clean things up! He will bring the change we need, the change we’ve been praying for!”[6]

John kept thundering out his message of warning, of change, and of hope – week after week, month after month. John the Baptist dared to confront the powerful and to name their sins, their hypocrisy, and their misdirected values. (He paid dearly for his efforts, but that’s a matter for another time.)

For today, we picked up the story in Luke 3, verse 21:

Now, when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove; and a voice came from heaven: “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”[7]

What Jesus had said about God being his Father (at the age of 12 in the Temple), God now echoed back about Jesus being his Son (at age 30 at the Jordan). God & Jesus shared a special relationship.

God and Jesus both acknowledge that they feel a special parent/child relationship… one that makes God “well pleased”. They share a deep connection of love and joy… and a sense of shared purpose. Jesus believed that he was doing his Father’s work, in his Father’s house, in his Father’s name… and God made it clear that He was proud of Jesus in return: God’s “beloved” Son.

May we “come of age”, as Jesus did -- regardless how many years old or years young we are -- by feeling ourselves as he did at 12: engaged in God’s work, in God’s house, in God’s beloved world, asking hard questions and giving wise responses.

Let’s not wait another 18 years before we do it, like Jesus did.

I believe we can do it. … Let’s get to it! … for God’s sake, in Jesus’ name.


[1] “Jesus Discovers What He is Meant to Do” (sermon, Jan 21, 2018, Rev. Paul Lance)

[2] “Jesus Grew Up Like a Normal Child” (sermon Jan. 14, 2018, Rev. Paul Lance)

[3] “John the Baptist Prepares the Way for Jesus” (sermon, Feb. 4, 2018, Rev. Paul Lance)

[4] McLaren, Brain D., “We Make the Road by Walking”, Jericho Books: NY, 2014, page 88.

[5] “Herald of Good Tidings” (sermon January 6, 2019, Rev. Paul Lance)

[6] See Luke 3:15-17; see also John 1:19-28 for more details

[7] Luke 3:21-22

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