A sermon on Luke 2: 41-52 (with special guest star Samuel) preached at Government Street Presbyterian Church; Mobile, AL, December 2015.
If reading’s more your style then by all means, proceed. (Although you’ll probably want to click on the link above and read the Scripture first.)
If it seems like a quick jump to be talking about an almost-teen-aged Jesus exactly two days after Christmas…I’m inclined to agree. But this morning’s story about Jesus and his family isn’t as far removed from the manger as it may seem at first. Jesus’ birth was a holy event, of course, but also a humble one. This morning’s story of Jesus in the temple is one of a young savior claiming his heavenly lineage, but is at the same time an example of the surprisingly ordinary occurrence of a child disobeying his parents.
Near the center of this story is, I think, the idea of family. The word family, especially at this time of year, can mean a lot of different things. Maybe for you that word brings up warm images of love-filled experiences. Maybe thinking of family means missing someone who is no longer here. Maybe family means strained relationships or conflicted communication. In all likelihood, family has at one time or another meant all of those things. Family is, to some degree, those with whom we share DNA. But it can also be those with whom we share experiences. When I think of my family, I of course think of my parents, my brother, and my other blood relatives. But I also think of my fellow summer staffers from the camp in western North Carolina. I think of my housemates from volunteer years in Nashville and New Orleans. And there are the seminary classmates and professors who encouraged me to genuinely embrace my call even when it didn’t always fit neatly into the usual definitions of ministry. So as we spend some more time with this story about Jesus’s family, I hope we can consider the many families with whom we walk through life.
However family is defined in your life, I’ll venture a guess that it’s not perfect 100% of the time. You wouldn’t be alone — trust me, when I was one of nine twenty-somethings sharing a five-bedroom house in New Orleans, things were not always pretty. And things weren’t always perfect for the holy family, either. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus had gone with other members of their community to the temple in Jerusalem, to observe Passover, as they would have every year. However when the traveling group left to head back toward Nazareth after the festival, Jesus wasn’t with them. When Mary and Joseph finally found him after days of looking, I imagine they felt deep relief that their son was safe. I also imagine, though, that Mary and Joseph were pretty frustrated. They had looked for a day among the people traveling with them, and for another three entire days in Jerusalem. Didn’t Jesus know he was supposed to stay with the group? Didn’t he think about the effects on his parents of this unannounced trip to the temple? I even imagine Mary and Joseph’s frustration growing as an adolescent Jesus counters their concern with “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Jesus’s time at the temple in Jerusalem is a time when he outwardly claims God as his father. Jesus, too, is thinking about family in different terms.
This picture of Jesus’s family seems like a pretty complicated one, but I’ll venture a guess that every family each of us has been part of could have, at some point or another, been labeled the same. When hot-button issues are as prevalent as ever in the news and on social media, and as the rifts between (and within) political parties grow deeper than ever, our relationships with our neighbors can certainly be strained. So I wondered, as I thought about this text, what we’re supposed to do when human relationships become tense. I wondered how we’re supposed to live as brothers and sisters in Christ — as family — even when we disagree. There’s certainly not one blanket answer to handle every human relationship or family conflict out there, but as we walk through life with one another I think we can take some notes from what young Jesus was doing in the temple.
When Mary and Joseph finally find Jesus, he is “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” Sitting, listening, and asking. God calls us to be in community with each other, whether that community is defined by shared blood or shared experience. No matter how exactly we define our families, these three things can help us strengthen them.
Jesus was sitting among the teachers. Sitting down isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Right now, after the relative chaos of the holiday season, it might sound particularly appealing, but I know at least for myself that I’m not always good at slowing down. Jesus sits at the temple in Jerusalem. He commits to being present where he is, without having one foot out the proverbial door already headed for whatever is next.
I was telling someone recently how I remember being in church as a kid, and sometimes being more focused on what would come after the worship service than what was happening around me in that moment. I’d take the little pew pencil and write only the most urgent and pressing notes in the margins of my bulletin. Things like: “Mom. Can we go to House of Taipei for lunch?!” In that North Carolina pew, spicy stir fry chicken was calling my name and I needed to know if I’d be there to answer. It’s safe to say I wasn’t doing the best job being present where I was.
That particular example may be a little trivial in the scale of things, but all that’s to say that minds will wander. It happens. We think about what’s on the grocery list or what needs to get done at work the next day or which kid has to be at what practice when. But what might happen if we turn away from our to do lists and our screens, look up, and sit still long enough to really see what — and who — is around us?
Jesus knew the temple was where he was meant to be. If you ask me his tactic of staying behind in Jerusalem without telling anyone might leave something to be desired, but he knew where he needed to be and he sat down to truly be there. About a year ago I was at a conference for college students, and the keynote speaker gave a simple, yet powerful, charge to the people gathered there: “Show up,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to show up.”
Jesus was sitting among the teachers, listening to them. Jesus did show up, and then the work began. This work wasn’t the stuff of feeding thousands or restoring sight to the blind — yet. It wasn’t Jesus walking in and saying “okay everybody listen up, I’m the Son of God and I’ve got some things to say!” Jesus was sitting, and Jesus was listening. Personally, I think listening is simultaneously one of the most important and one of the most difficult parts of being in meaningful community with other people.
At least some of you know that I’ve worked at several different summer camps. Camps and conference centers, much like many churches, have their traditions. Each camp has a culture and a familiar way of doing things — that one song that ends every campfire, the favorite blessings before meals, the overnight camp out that older campers enjoy and younger campers look forward to. Each camp, of course, does all of these things slightly differently. And that’s great. One thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten to know four different camps, is that the number one rule to success in joining a new-to-me camp family is to listen first. In all of those communities there has been room for questions, suggestions, and creative thinking, but first, I had to listen for what really defined each community. I had to listen for what made each place what it was. Before Jesus began his adult ministry that we find later in Scripture, he listens to the people who have gone before him. Likewise, at the foundation of meaningful relationships in our own communities, even in midst of difference, is listening. We have to slow down long enough to really get to know each other.
Jesus was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.
Asking questions requires some courage. By default, asking a question means admitting you don’t know something, and whether it’s said out loud or implied, “I don’t know” isn’t always easy. But “I don’t know” can also be a really powerful opportunity. Maybe not every time I ask for directions will lead to a spiritual awakening, but when Jesus asks questions of the teachers in the temple, he’s saying “I care about this, and I want to understand it more.” When we ask questions to people in our communities, I hope we do so in a genuine and open way that says “I care about you, and I want to understand you more.” The act of asking a question doesn’t guarantee that we’ll get an answer we like, or one fully understand in that moment. After all, when Jesus explained his absence, Scripture tells us Mary and Joseph did not understand. After we sit down and listen, we can actively seek to learn more.
When Jesus went to the temple and sat, listened, and asked questions of the people there, he probably surprised them. I imagine there were some who questioned what a twelve year old could have to contribute to a room full of practiced teachers and older members of the faith community. And yet the text tells us that “all who heard [Jesus] were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” Jesus and Samuel, who we heard about in our first reading this morning, are just two examples young people who lived lives devoted to the service of God. Mary herself was young when Jesus was born. Just as God gathers us into families of all kinds, God speaks to us through teachers of all kinds.
I should mention though that, if you haven’t already guessed or experienced, we probably won’t get this sit-listen-ask thing right from the very beginning. After all, even Jesus had growing to do in the way he understood his place in humanity and with God. The part of Luke’s gospel that we read this morning ends by telling us that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” Jesus was no ordinary baby, but he still had to do some learning along the way about what it really meant to live as the Son of God. We, too, have learning to do along the way. After spending this time in the temple, Jesus obeys his parents and returns to Nazareth with them. In spite of her likely frustration toward a son who wandered off, Mary “treasured all these things in her heart,” just as she did following the shepherd’s visit after Jesus’s birth. Maybe this is her version of sitting, and listening, as she takes time to find meaning in the events of her family’s life.
This morning may our teacher be twelve-year-old Jesus, who embraced his identity as the Son of God by sitting, listening, and asking. As we walk a sometimes uncertain path, sitting with each other, listening to each other, and asking each other questions, may our hearts be open to do the same with God. Amen.