top of page

“A Lifetime of Spiritual Growth”

a sermon based on Luke 2:41-52

I chose this text for Father’s Day, because this is the first time Jesus uses “Father” language in referring to God. This twelve-year-old boy says to his anxious parents: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s House?” (Luke 2:49)

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. (Right?) 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!

The break-down of communication between this precocious pre-teen and his parents might ring true to some of you who have raised children of your own, but the thing that struck me is that Joseph probably thought he was Jesus’ father… and their house was Up North in Nazareth, not down here in urban Jerusalem!

There is an apparent rudeness in Jesus’ dismissal of Papa Joseph… and yet, there is also an affirmation (of sorts). You see, for Jesus to use the familial term “Abba/Father” to address God is a sign of how significant Joseph’s parental role had been in Jesus’ upbringing. We give Mary a lot of credit, of course, but Jesus must have learned much from Papa Joe, too.

And the way they “lived their faith” as a family back at home must have seemed interesting and exciting to young Jesus.

Otherwise, if it had been a dull drudgery (a resistant 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 (according to this story in Luke‘s Gospel), his parents find him three days long “sitting among the teachers of the Temple, listening to them & asking questions.”

And for a 6th grader, a boy of 12 (Luke tells us): Jesus showed amazing understanding in his answers.

To my way of thinking, this is a perfect example of the “nurture and admonition” which our parents vow to supply to their children when we baptize them -- vows in which we, the members of this congregation, promise to give them assistance. Mary & Joseph saw to it that Jesus was raised in a faithful home; that he was habitually at the synagogue school and that he learned his Bar Mitzvah lessons, such that he made a memorable impression on the Rabbis & Teachers in the Jerusalem Temple on that occasion so long ago.


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, but what does it have to do with us?

First, it indicates that Jesus himself went through the same stages of growth and development that all of us must go through as we mature. As I say in my sermon title, it’s a lifetime of spiritual (and physical) growth.

Second, these references to Jesus as a child -- as a self-absorbed 12-year-old no less, who thought nothing of the anxiety of his parents as he enjoyed himself in the Jerusalem Temple! -- makes Jesus seem “more human” than most stories about him.

I’m sure he was a gifted child, but Jesus was not abnormal. The breakdown of communication between Jesus and his parents (that is obvious in this story) should give consolation to the parents of teen-agers in our own day, knowing that Mary & Joseph went through the same thing. (It’s what 12-year-olds do! Don’t take it personally. They’re just growing up!)

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.”

So, in the end, Jesus was not in rebellion. He stayed with his family until the beginning of his ministry, at age 30… some 18 years later! And 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.” Perhaps Luke learned of this childhood event directly from Mary.

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 compre- hension, in social development -- just as we go through them. But he was aided by the stability of a godly family and 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 started my own faith journey in a family that considered Christianity something you do every day of your life; where involvement in church was habitual, and where private prayer & public worship was an exciting, creative vehicle for the expression of thoughts and emotions that would otherwise stay pent up.

I’ll get back to that (my own family story) in a minute, but for now I just want to make the point that we, who have been raised within godly families, within the embrace of faithful worshiping communities, may not have the dramatic testimonies of those who did not come to know Christ until some later crisis in their lives “turned them around.” We may not be able, like them, to point to a specific moment in which we were “born again” or “converted.” But we certainly have something for which to be thankful...

We may not be like Nicodemus (for example), who had to be born anew -- born from above, born from the Spirit -- because he had been pursuing a different path of success (serving a different idea of who God was) than what Jesus’ Way was introducing. … Or (as another example), we may not be like the Apostle Paul, who had to be knocked from his high horse and made to start over blind, so he could see; who had to be broken before he could be made whole, who was so far lost that it took a special act of divine intervention for him to be found. (!) No, our spiritual journey may not be a dramatic conversion, an all-or-nothing transformation. But we have an assurance of vital Christian faith that is even greater than the “born again” Nicodemus or St. Paul!

We have the model of none other than Jesus Christ himself, growing up in God -- gradually increasing in God’s favor, year-after-year gaining in understanding and in stature, in fellowship with all people -- as our guide!

With a model like that -- 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 and admonition of the Lord, and gathering (habitually!) as a church community to celebrate God’s coming in our midst. Your Spirit is born anew every day; take advantage of that glorious promise in every 24 hour period. You’ve been born from above, in the Spirit.

The misunderstanding we see here between Jesus and his parents (faithful law-abiding celebrative Jewish folks that they were), causes us (the readers, the hearers of this story) to start to wonder who Jesus thought he was in relation to the world-view of the religion of his culture and his day. Jesus said he was ‘in his Father’s house” there in the Temple. Jesus called God his Father -- and he later said that God is “our Father”, too. In fact, that’s the way Jesus wants us to address God when we pray! (!)

In my younger years, at Alpena Community College (1972-74), I was part of an experimental course funded by a grant from the Carnegie Foundation which blended English, sociology, psychology, and media classes in four-hour-long 16-credit classes, four days a week. We called it a “Liberal Arts Bloc” (LAB). One of the things we learned in those days was that going through a period of “alienation” is typical when a young person matures.

You see, the theory was that all children begin with a number of years of socialization within the family and culture which establishes “normative” behavior -- we do what we’ve been told, what we’ve been taught, what we assume is “normal” in general.

And then, around puberty, or adolescence, each individual goes through a period of “alienation,” in which familial norms and standards are questioned, boundaries are pushed, new awareness of self-identity is gained, and one truly becomes an “in-divid-ual” indivisible: an unique ego-entity adrift in a world of multiple meanings and with a plurality of choices.

For many teenagers, this is a very hard period of life. The young, growing brain is just then developing “abstract” reasoning … and developing “idealism”, which contrasts “what is” with what “should be”. Everything is questioned, as childhood relationships fall away. The young person is going through a period of “alienation” from what had been “the norm”… Maturing beyond what Marcus Borg calls “pre-critical naiveté” to a new awareness...

To me, this story of Jesus at age 12 in the Temple -- drawing nearer to his calling to become a religious teacher and social innovator, while drawing away from his family of origin -- is a perfectly natural & appropriate behavior for a young person.

He is going from the “childhood” of life -- the normative values to which he was asked to be obedient -- and entering a period of “alienation.” Our hope is (as with every child going through puberty and into early adulthood) that he will come through this disruptive period of “disassociation from his past