Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sermon: "Jesus: The Early Years"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church Of Amherst
December 30, 2012
Luke 2:41-52

“Jesus: The Early Years”

It’s every parent’s nightmare.
You and your family have traveled a long distance to a far away and bustling metropolis, and being small town people in a big, big city you’ve spent the entire trip with your eyes locked on each other and never straying more than an arms distance away. On the busy city streets and when exiting crowded theaters and shopping areas you clutch your children’s hands tightly, weaving your way through the crowds single file or in a huddled group, making sure no one gets pulled away by the constantly changing current of strangers moving all around you.

And then it happens…. you let your guard down, just for a second, or someone lets their hand slip or has their attention diverted by some curiosity or attraction….and suddenly one of you is gone.

In that worst case scenario that every parent experiences at some point in their life - in shopping malls, grocery stores, and amusement parks – you experience that gut wrenching feeling of dread in the moment that you realize that your child is no longer in sight.

You begin a frantic search of your immediate surroundings, hoping to find him or her hiding behind a clothing rack or wandering down the candy aisle or standing amongst other children crowded around a man selling balloons.

But as your search area widens and still your child is no where to be seen your mind begins to assume the worst – playing out scenarios of a possible child abduction, or at best picturing your crying child wandering around frightened and hopelessly lost, as you spend many heart wrenching minutes or hours searching for them and anticipating their return to your waiting arms.

It’s amazing how quickly the panic sets in, in that moment that you realize that your child is gone.
It’s amazing how strongly your heart can leap in your chest when you look at the spot where they last were and it registers that they’re no longer there.
Even if the very next second you catch sight of them standing only a few feet away or just behind you, you can’t help but let out a sigh of relief because thankfully, the loss you felt in that moment was only temporary.

Even if we’ve never experienced that moment as a parent, many of us may vividly remember a time when we were lost or strayed too far from our parents as a child.

That’s the moment that Luke captures for us in his gospel story this morning.
That feeling of dread, that breathless moment of experienced loss and fear that catches in our throat, and is ultimately followed by a sense of overwhelming relief when the one who was lost is found.

This scenario played out a little differently for Mary and Joseph.
According to Luke’s gospel, they were on their way home after the Passover celebration and had traveled a full day away from Jerusalem before they realized that the 12-year-old Jesus was no longer with them.

Now if you were traveling with say 28 teenagers in three passenger vans, it’s understandable how you might miscount and mistakenly leave one behind. Just ask our youth group advisors about our trip to New Orleans.

But Mary and Joseph had only one child, or possibly 3 or 4 if we accept that Jesus had brothers and sisters, which is still a reasonable number to keep track of, and yet it was a full day before Mary and Joseph noticed that their adolescent son was missing.

Which is actually not that unusual given the context. They were traveling in a large group of family and friends, most likely with the woman walking separately from the men. Mary probably assumed that Joseph had Jesus, and Joseph probably assumed that he was with Mary.
It was only when they came together at some point and sought him out amongst their family and friends that they realized that no one had seen him since they left Jerusalem.

We can imagine what that walk back to Jerusalem must have been like for these frantic parents.
It was a full day’s walk, and they may have done it all on their own, unless their family and friends chose to backtrack with them. 
And as much as we like to revere the holy family as being saint like and beyond reproach, there was undoubtedly some anger and blame being tossed around on that long walk back, as with each passing hour mother and father alike grew even more worried and fearful of what could happen to a 12-year-old boy left to fend for himself in a big city like Jerusalem.

Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph searched for Jesus with great anxiety, for three days, before they finally found him.
And they found him in the safest place that he could be. Sitting in the Temple amongst the rabbis and teachers, listening to them speak and asking them questions, as any 12-year-old boy preparing for his Bar Mitzvah might do. 

When Mary caught sight of her son she didn’t glide up to him with her halo aglow and bless him for taking his first steps towards fulfilling his destiny as Emmanuel – God with Us.
Instead she did what any mother would do after searching for her lost son for three days - She yelled at him.
Especially after she found him safe and sound and seemingly oblivious to all the trouble and worry that he had caused.

“How could you worry us like this?” She said. “Your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety…how could you treat us with such disrespect?”
Jesus responded of course with wisdom beyond his years….or with sarcasm, depending on how you read it.
“Why were you searching for me?” he said, “Did you not know that I would be in my father’s house?”

In other words, why didn’t his parents just assume that he would be in the Temple – in God’s house?
Had they forgotten that their son was destined for greatness?
Did they forget about the angels who announced his birth and appeared above the manger in Bethlehem singing Glory to God in the Highest?
Did they forget that God was Jesus’ father, not Joseph?

Well, apparently they did.

If we step outside the story for a moment and look at it in the context of Luke’s gospel, we realize that Mary and Joseph are not behaving like parents who know that their son is THE Son of God.
Some scholars wonder if Luke stumbled across this story of Jesus as a 12-year-old and chose to include it in his Gospel as a transitional story, as a link between Jesus’ birth and adulthood, without giving thought to the fact that it seems to clash with the nativity story, which presents Mary and Joseph as being fully aware of the Divine nature of their son.

Here Mary and Joseph behave not like the parents of God incarnate, but instead like any parent with a lost child might behave.
They fear for his safety, they have no idea where he could have gone, they don’t trust that he has the power and the ability to look after himself.

But even if Mary and Joseph remember the fanfare that surrounded their son’s birth, perhaps they have seen no hint of his being different or special since that day.
Maybe Jesus grew up as any child did, with skinned knees and a fear of monsters under the bed.
Maybe he didn’t ace every test in school or change his lunch time water into wine - or chocolate milk - as might be expected given his adulthood powers.

Maybe he was just like every other little boy, albeit with a more curious disposition and a keener interest in scripture than other boys his age.
The truth is we don’t know what Jesus was like as a child.
Although it may interest you to know that we do have some ancient stories in our Christian tradition that speculate at just that.
We have four gospels in our New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – but as some of you may know there are other gospels that were written about Jesus that didn’t make it into our Bible, for various reasons. Some were written too long after Jesus death to be considered accurate, others contained theological inaccuracies as decided by the 4th century Council of bishops who assembled our Bible, and others were thought to be too fantastical or too speculative.
One such gospel is The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which dates to the second century, and includes stories of Jesus as a young boy.

The gospel writer here wondered how the miraculous powers that Jesus possessed might be expressed in the hands of an immature 5-year-old child.

If any of you have ever seen the Twilight Zone Episode where a young boy discovers that he has special powers to heal or harm at will but he does not yet have the judgment to control those powers, then you know where this is going.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas portrays Jesus as a precocious five-year-old who gets into all sorts of mischief.
He creates toy sparrows out of clay and brings them to life so he can watch them fly away….on the Sabbath, much to the chagrin of the Temple elders.

In school, he refuses to recite the alphabet when asked to do so by his teachers.
He tells them that they lack a true understanding of the meaning of the alpha and the omega as it pertains to God, and he calls them hypocrites and fools.
I wonder how many hours of detention he got for that.

And in one tragic yet humorous episode, Jesus and another young boy are playing on a rooftop when the other boy falls to his death.
The boy’s parents accuse Jesus of pushing the boy off the roof, as Jesus had been known to strike his playmates down in anger over the slightest transgression. But here Jesus professes his innocence and then proceeds to bring the other boy back to life so the boy can tell his parents himself that Jesus did not cause his death.
Maybe now we understand why the Council of bishops chose not to include this gospel in the Christian canon.

Given that we have only one wildly speculative account of Jesus childhood in this later gospel, and only one biblical portrayal of Jesus as a 12-year-old in the gospel Luke, we could say that Jesus just didn’t do much as a child to draw attention to himself.
It was his ministry as an adult that made him stand out and caused people to take notice…and in those three short years, he changed the world.

What this story in Luke’s gospel tells us about Jesus, is that while he may have been born into greatness, under the blessing of a heavenly angel, he didn’t assume that greatness right away.
He grew into it.
Luke ends his story of the 12-year-old boy Messiah by saying, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”

As Jesus grew older, he grew wiser and he grew in his understanding of God and his understanding of his fellow man.
And he took baby steps, and child steps, and adolescent steps to get there, just as we all do.
Even the Son of God had to sit at the feet of his teachers and his parents and his peers to learn what it means to be a good person and a Godly person in this world.

And even the Son of God can worry his parents when he wanders too far from their loving reach.

One of our greatest fears when we lose sight of our children is not just that they will come to some harm, but we fear that we’ve seriously failed them as a parent.
We failed to protect them from harm. We failed to keep them under our constant watch and care. We let them wander off and allowed them to find trouble or allowed trouble to find them.

Mary and Joseph discovered that right around the age of twelve, their son was destined to wander off and take his first steps towards finding his own way in the world. He was beginning to assert his own identity and name who it is that God had called him to be…and their role as his parents was to give him enough space to allow him to do just that.
As much as they wanted to clutch him tightly and never let him out of their sight, he was as much a child of God’s as he was a child of theirs, and there would come a day when they would need to let him go, and give him space to grow.

Now, we all aren’t born into this world like Jesus was, beneath a chorus of heavenly angels, but God has chosen, named, and called each and every one of us to be a blessed child of God.
We may not project the image of Godliness that Jesus did in his lifetime or walk perfectly in his footsteps, but we’re called to devote our lives to walking in the way of God as best as we can.

And that can be a scary thing to do…which is why throughout our lives we assume the roles of both parent and child.
Sometimes clinging to the parts of ourselves that we can’t bear to let go of or let out of our sight, and sometimes wandering off down unfamiliar streets all on our own, trusting that God as our father and mother will come find us if we wander too far astray.

Like Jesus, we’re all searching for greater wisdom, of God and each other, and we’ll find that God’s house and the community we find there are the bearers of that wisdom.

And like Mary and Joseph, we’re all searching for Jesus, and we’ll find him right here too, in God’s house, in God’s community, and in the lost and found pieces of our own gentle hearts.


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