Sunday, February 7, 2016

Fathers and Sons

This is the first sermon in a short series about the early life of Jesus. 
Jesus: The Missing Years 

Luke 2:21-42
January 24, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our gospel reading today is from the gospel of Luke, one of the few stories we have about the early life of Jesus, and the only story in which we see Jesus as a child, speaking and acting on his own. After his birth, we read that the family was warned to get out of town, because King Herod was looking for them, and killing every child under the age of two in an effort to kill Jesus and eliminate the threat he posed. The family lived in Egypt for a time, then returned to the hometown of Mary and Joseph, where they presumably lived permanently from then on. It was the custom of every faithful Jew who could do so to “go up” to Jerusalem at Passover, to worship in the temple. That’s what we find Mary and Joseph doing in this story from scripture, and this is where we get a glimpse of the young Jesus.

Please pray with me as we prepare our hearts for God’s word.

God our helper, by your Holy Spirit, open our minds that as the Scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed, we may be led into your truth and taught your will, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

What stories are told about you as a child? Who tells them?
Do you recall the events that surround those stories?
Do you ever argue with the veracity of them?

Depending on your parents and siblings, those stories may be heartwarming, or heartbreaking. And they may or may not be exactly true. Where famous people are concerned, especially in the time of Jesus, the stories of their childhood are matters of great importance.

Probably all of us of a certain age heard the story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree, then confessing to his father “I cannot tell a lie.” It is a great story. However, it is not true. At least it is not literally true –not a really truly happened piece of history like Washington crossing the Delaware. But the story of little George Washington cutting down the cherry tree and then confessing to his father has value as a story, even if not as history. The story has value because it tells us something about how people understood the moral character of our country’s first president.

This little vignette of Jesus at the temple serves the same function, but has even greater value because most Christians – scholars and everyday people, believe that it is both history and theology, a story that is factually true AND spiritually true. While it is the only story in the Bible about Jesus as a child, it is not the only story that exists. There are numerous old manuscripts that tell stories of Jesus. They call themselves gospels, but for reasons that will be obvious, they were not included in the Bible we now use.

One such manuscript is “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas.” It is full of stories of Jesus as a little boy, from toddlerhood on, and to our modern ears, it is very, very strange. These are not cute stories about an adorable little toddler Jesus walking across the water in the bathtub while his mother tries to bathe him. They are not little moral tales like George Washington and the cherry tree. They are stories that would have demonstrated two things to the people of Jesus’s time:

One, that he was indeed a god, a superhuman who could do magic, and who was above the law in terms of human behavior.

Two, that as he grew and developed, he learned self-control, wisdom, and how to control his superpowers and use them for good.

So, in the infancy gospels, we encounter stories of the young child Jesus who makes sparrows out of clay, then turns them into real birds. And when a neighbor boy messes up the water Jesus is using to form the clay, Jesus speaks and strikes the boy down with an illness. In other stories, Jesus gets put out with a teacher he doesn’t like, and the teacher is struck dead with a word from him. At one point in the story, the neighbors drop by the house and ask Mary and Joseph to move to another town. As Jesus grows and develops in these stories, he is less likely to kill the neighbors.

In one of the stories, a neighbor boy falls off a roof, and the adults accuse Jesus of pushing the boy off the roof. Jesus brings the boy back to life, but only so that the boy can testify that he fell, and that Jesus had not pushed him.

These are strange stories, unbelievable, but at the time they seemed believable. Although the show Jesus in a very negative light, they served a purpose. There is a popular series of books that I know the kids can tell you more about, the Percy Jackson series. The first book tells how Percy finds himself at Camp Half-Blood. The camp is like a Hogwarts school for demigods, the children of gods and humans. Turns out Percy’s real father is Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. Percy is accused of having stolen Zeus' master lightning bolt. But he is innocent of the crime, and so Percy, with a satyr named Grover Underwood and Annabeth Chase, a daughter of Athena, sets off on a journey to the underworld. The three go on this quest, facing numerous mythological monsters on the way, to recover Zeus’s lightning bolt from the real thief, and save the mortal world from destruction. The stories of Percy Jackson and his companions show us how a hero is formed –how at first he does not understand his true identity,but as he matures and gains experience,he takes on the mantle of both power and responsibility.

It isn’t surprising that such stories would have been concocted about Jesus. We have questions about him, about his childhood. What was he like, as a little boy? Did he know his true identity from the beginning? When did his mother and father tell him the story of his birth? Most of the time, we Christians, when we think about Jesus, slip into thinking about him not as fully human and fully divine, but as one or the other.

We think of him as a little angel boy, floating six inches off the ground, already doing miracles and speaking great important truths, already preaching and healing. But that removes his humanity. And if he was not human, he could not have been who he said he was. If Jesus were only God playacting, his life, death and resurrection mean nothing. When we think of Jesus as only divine, we erase his humanity, the part that redeems us –because what difference would it make for us that he was raised from the dead? Of course he was! All gods are immortal!

If we understand that Jesus is fully divine AND fully human we can come closer to that amazing truth that he was not just pretending to be like us, but he was and STILL IS God with us in every way –that he took on everything that it meant to be human: the need to eat, to sleep, to cry.

He had to learn to walk, to fall down and get back up.
He had to learn to talk, to feed himself, and how to share with the other kids.
Jesus is human, and so he knows us thoroughly, the minor indigestion and the real suffering
that every human knows. Jesus was human –suffering, grieving, dying, loving, knowing disappointment, and joy, laughing at jokes and learning how to read.

We don’t know when it was that he became aware that he was also divine.
Perhaps, as some storytellers describe it, the truth dawned on him gradually as he studied the scripture and prayed. Maybe his mother and Joseph gently shared stories with him until he understood for himself. Maybe he wasn’t even sure of it until he was baptized and the sky was torn open and the dove descended and the voice of God spoke to call him beloved.

Or maybe it happened that day in the temple. I think maybe Mary and Joseph waited until he was around twelve and then they told him, because he had reached the age to grasp the full implications of the story. So when they went up to Jerusalem for the Passover, maybe Jesus had those words ringing in his ears, and maybe he wanted to draw closer to this Heavenly Father, the one who had blessed him and gifted him, and who had given him a mother in Mary and a father in Joseph, who had fashioned and made him a bar mitzvah, a son of the covenant.

So Jesus, unthinking as twelve year old boys often are, not intending to be disobedient, but simply drawn to the place where his heart, mind and spirit were nourished and would flourish, went back to the temple. He went to his Father’s house, to listen, to learn, to understand. And when Mary and Joseph found him, much to their relief, I am sure, he went home with them, to his father and mother’s house, to listen and learn and understand still more.

Here’s how I think his mother Mary would have told the story, as she unwrapped the frankincense and myrrh, and maybe what was left of the gold. Here’s what I think she might have said, and even though we are not as he was, he is as we are, so these words are for us, today, now:

Child, you know how much you are loved.
From the very moment you were born, you were special.
You’ve been surrounded from birth love, and you have received some amazing gifts
through the generosity of the people who love you, and by the grace of God.

The gifts – the material things - that were given you as a baby, they are not the real gifts.
The real gifts are those that are a part of you:
your loving heart, a heart that will break when you see the suffering in this world;
your caring hands, hands that will reach out to heal, to hold the suffering in your arms,
to touch the sadness and the beauty in the world around you;
your eyes, that see that sadness and beauty,
and look beyond the surface to the deep truths of our lives,
eyes that see the path of wisdom and walk it without stumbling;
your mind, your bright intellect, that will help you to understand scripture,
your spirit, that comes from God and knows you are beloved,
and because of that wants to help others see that they too are beloved.

We are so blessed that you are our child, that you have come into this world to connect us more fully to God. Beloved, you must remember this –your life is big, and not small, and your life has a divine purpose.

Whatever you do on a daily basis, know that you were put here to walk in God’s light,
to share God’s love, to be generous with your gifts, and to learn to be human, fully human.
You are loved and chosen, claimed and called, so each day, may you increase in wisdom
and in human and divine favor. Thanks be to God! Thanks be to God! Thanks be to God!


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