Sunday, December 27, 2009

The First Sunday of Christmas [Year C] - December 27, 2009 (Luke 2:41-52)

One of the most popular gifts opened this Christmas at our house was a doll that my parents gave to Laura, our 19-month old. It blinks, drinks a bottle, laughs, and even snores. Clare, our 3-year-old has latched onto it rather quickly, even though it is her sister’s gift. It is Laura’s baby, but she will need to share it with her sister, who cradles it and loves it and takes very good care of it.

Here we are, three short days after Christmas—three short days after our own “oohing and ahhing” over the baby in the manger—and we’re presented with another manifestation of our Lord and God most of us rarely consider: the Pre-Teen Jesus. It is perhaps a little strange to ponder a pre-teenage Jesus, one who is clearly no longer a defenseless, cooing infant, wrapped in swaddling clothes, but who is also not yet the charismatic and critical adult Jesus. He’s there, in-between, still under the guardianship of his earthly mother and father, but, by the by, becoming aware of his special relationship to his Heavenly Father, as well. True, Jesus is given to us, but as he grows we’ll need to learn to share him with his Father, too.

Of all the gospels, only Luke provides any information about pre-teen Jesus in this short account of his family’s yearly trek to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover when he is twelve years old. It becomes the only bridge we have between the early Nazareth days of his youth and the more well-known years where he wanders around Galilee and Jerusalem, challenging people with the good news of God’s kingdom.

If we are a bit unfamiliar with the pre-teen Jesus and don’t know what to do with him, we are plenty familiar with some of what we see in this story: a young man testing his parents’ boundaries and causing them considerable anxiety. A precocious youth displaying a mind and will of his own. A young scholar in the making, thirsty for the knowledge of the elders. A thoughtful boy who shows obedience to his parents. And while this flimsy eleven-verse bridge is all we have linking the two Jesuses we know much better, it does offer some stability and comfort to learn that the Lord Jesus did live there, for awhile, in those often-painful, but very exciting in-between years. Isn’t it somewhat fascinating to consider the God of Heaven and Earth making his way not only through the manger and then the high courts of Pilate and Caiaphas, but also through the obscure, undocumented days of a boy growing up in some border town? It makes you wonder how God might be working even now in the obscure, undocumented days of children everywhere.

That is essentially the topic addressed by the watershed book, Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, researched and written by two sociologists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and published in 2005. In it, the researchers develop the first and most comprehensive study of the current religious and spiritual trends and practices of teenagers. They do so by conducting hundreds of in-depth, one-on-one interviews and thousands of written surveys with teenagers all across the United States, covering as many socio-economic and religious backgrounds as possible.

The book mainly breaks down their findings into statistics and observations that can be rather tedious to wade through, but occasionally they work in an anecdote from one of their interviews. We meet “Joy,” a 15-year-old who drinks and does drugs under the nose of her parents who barely know her or her 23-year-old boyfriend. “Joy’s” take on God is vague, at best, perceiving him as a distant, nondescript figure who doesn’t really do much. Then there’s “Kristen,” whose way to a remarkably strong faith comes about after her father’s tragic suicide and her mother’s struggle to keep the family afloat. The stories are compelling, but the researchers’ two main findings are less so. Namely, they present that the great majority of teenagers in America are frustratingly inarticulate about what they believe about God and that the average American teenager follows whatever religious practices her parents have introduced her to and has not thought too deeply about them. As a teen, myself, I figure I would have been in the same category.

This does not appear to be the case with Jesus, who is discovered in the temple as a twelve-year-old, wowing the elders with his answers. This also does not seem to be the case among our own youth at Epiphany, at least from my perspective. Our youth readily participate in all kinds of youth activities, service projects, Bible studies, and worship roles, often boldly praying aloud before their peers. Nevertheless, the book does paint what I suspect is a fairly accurate, albeit worrisome, picture of religious and spiritual trends in our youth today. I am also confident that the God who is the Father of Jesus is, indeed, present and active in the lives of teenagers everywhere—just as he is present and active in everyone’s lives—whether or not they know how to look for him or whether or not they can articulate it. It’s a question about learning where to find him.

That, I believe, is the mistake that Mary and Joseph make in this morning’s story. Their mistake is not in their failure to keep track of him, but in not understanding where he might be found. The whole scene is quite easy to imagine, especially considering how extended Middle Eastern families often operate. The whole family clan had likely gone up to Jerusalem for the Passover, a big caravan of uncles and aunts and cousins, more distant relatives, and probably a couple of unrelated Nazareth townspeople, to boot. Children of all ages would have tagged along, too, fulfilling the ancient decree. Most likely they would have wandered back and forth between relatives and friends, the adults caring lovingly for whichever children happen to be near them at the time. Last Sunday something similar happened here at Epiphany when Laura, our nineteen-month-old, headed right out an open door, making her way for the parking lot. Before we even realized she was out of sight, a loving adult scooped her up on the sidewalk and brought her back inside to us.

For several hours, it’s no big deal that Mary and Joseph haven’t laid eyes on their son, but after a full day goes by with no sign of him, they start to wonder which relative or friend might have him. They search through the whole caravan to no avail before deciding to back-track to Jerusalem, taking another day in the process. “Where could he be?” they worry and wonder. Luke does not tell us each and every place they search, but apparently they take another whole day scouring the city before they happen upon him at the Temple, of all places, holding forth with the learned elders who reside there. Mary and Joseph are astonished and a bit annoyed with his behavior. “Why have you treated us like this?” they ask. If Jesus had a middle name, they probably used it at this point: “Jesus of Nazareth, don’t you know we were searching for you with great anxiety?!?”
It’s Jesus’ reply that makes me wonder whether Mary and Joseph shouldn’t have first considered the Temple, whether Mary and Joseph should not have approached this whole scenario with a bit more faith, deeper understanding that their son is also the Son of God and therefore they are sharing him. He is taking time to strengthen that relationship. “Why were you looking for me?” he simply asks them. “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I would be here, in my Father’s house?”

Jesus, you see, is never really lost, in the sense that he doesn’t know where he is. Jesus never gets himself lost, not here at the age of twelve, nor as an adult when he’s hanging out with ordinary fishermen and tax-collectors. Jesus, to be sure, always knows exactly where he is and our mistake, in our spiritual and religious lives, is thinking that we can always find him when in reality, he has been given to do precisely the opposite: to find us.

It boils down to what the ancient Christians called “the scandal of the particular”: that a universal, all-knowing and all-powerful God who sits at the helm of the universe and all eternity would somehow unite himself with a particular individual and with all the baggage that accompanies that. Just as it may be difficult for us to imagine Jesus as an adolescent, at that stage where they still need the hugs and authority of human parents but can’t always admit it, it is difficult for the world to understand that God has identified himself with this particular, first-century Jewish individual. It is a stumbling block for quite a few that the divine and eternal would choose to tangle itself up with the human and the mortal. As a result, the world will offer up dozens upon dozens of tantalizing option for encountering God never considering that God would stoop this low to encounter us.
And yet, that is what God is doing in Jesus of Nazareth. That is what God is doing in this precocious boy from a small border town. That is precisely what God is doing in the temple with this kid named Jesus.

So, if search we must—and we will certainly feel that urge—let us not do it half-heartedly. One early church theologian, commenting on this passage, said that “the search for Jesus must be neither careless nor indifferent, for those who seek in this manner will never find him” (Origen of Alexandria, On Luke's Gospel 18, 2-4: GCS 9, 112-113). Let us do it with great anxiety, as if our whole life depended on it, as if our hopes and dreams of what is to be was linked to being found in his embrace.

But let us do it in places where we know he frequents. Where might you suggest we start? In the manger? Well, I think we’ve got that one down pat. In the temple of worship, with God’s people? In the words of a Scripture that is ancient, yet somehow also new? In a frugal meal of bread and wine? What about the cross? Could we find him there, seeking us out in death? Seeking us out to forgive? And then, after three long days…when we’ve grown weary with our anxiety, weary with the trials of life, what about looking for him, at long last…in the…tomb?

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

image: "The Dispute in the Temple" Simon Bening, 1525-30

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