December 30, 2012
I. During my years of youth ministry, we typically used vans to get to and from weekend retreats, summer camps and mission trips. From New Jersey we went as far as Maine and Michigan, so were in close proximity to each other for a lot of hours. “Nurture notes” were a longstanding tradition for these events. All were expected to write a brief note affirming each person in the group. These were distributed just before getting in the vans to head home. As nurture notes were read, people expressed verbal thanks and further affirmation to each other. They recounted special experiences they had shared. They started singing songs that had been favorites of the event. Whether as a youth or an adult, how many of you have had that kind of experience? Yes, really raise your hands!
A. Now I want you to go back a couple of thousand years and imagine the pilgrims returning to Galilee after the Passover festival. That’s the setting for the story of 12 year old Jesus in Luke 2:41-52. Like Mary’s visit to Elizabeth that we talked about last Sunday, the distance is about 75 miles. A group of pilgrims would cover less than 10 miles a day. The men would go ahead with the gear and set up camp. Then the women and children would arrive towards evening. With the packing up and getting organized, the first day of returning home would probably cover about 5 miles, which could be walked in a couple of hours by unencumbered adults.
B. Now every year [Jesus] parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44Assuming 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. 45When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48When 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.” 49He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50But they did not understand what he said to them. 51Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.
II. This is the only incident from Jesus’ childhood recorded in any of the Gospels, but that didn’t stop others from inventing some very creative stories to satisfy their curiosity.
A. The Quran (5:110) says, “O Jesus, Son of Mary! Call to mind My favour upon thee and upon thy mother, when I strengthened thee with the Holy Spirit, that thou shouldest speak to men in the cradle. … Thou didst create of clay the figure of a bird, by My leave, and didst breathe into it, and by My leave it became a bird.”
B. The best known of the imaginary stories of Jesus as a child come from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which was written by Gnostic heretics in the 3rd century to suggest that Jesus was not a flesh and blood human. It has this story about Jesus creating birds from mud and making them live. It adds that when another boy splashed the mud puddles, Jesus cursed him and he withered up and died. He raised to life a boy who was killed falling from a roof and healed his brother James when he was bitten by a snake. He stretched a piece of wood that was too short for a project Joseph was building in his shop.
C. Assorted other legends also sprang up later. On their way to Egypt after the visit of the Magi, the Holy Family stayed in a cave populated by a herd of dragons, who fell down and adored the baby Jesus. A sorcerer had turned a man into a mule, and when Mary put the baby Jesus on the mule’s back, it turned back into the man. People were healed of leprosy by washing in baby Jesus’ bathwater.
III. All of these legends about Jesus’ childhood ascribe supernatural power to Jesus, a sort of Superboy. Luke points us in a different direction. Just as God’s greatness was hidden in Jesus’ ordinary childhood, God’s greatness floods our ordinary lives with light.
A. When Jesus asserted that he must be in his Father’s house, his parents did not understand. Of course, they knew the extraordinary circumstances of his birth, but they had been living as an ordinary family for 12 years. Jesus undoubtedly called Joseph “Abba” and Mary “Amma.” But when he spoke of being in his Father’s house they knew he wasn’t talking about Joseph. Mary was the quintessential Mom, expressing her anxiety for her child and appealing to Dad for support. “Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”
B. Some have suggested that Jesus’ response rebuked Mary and Joseph for not recognizing his divinity. That strikes me as heading in the direction of some of those legends that dismiss Jesus’ humanity. Rather, I think Jesus was a typical, ordinary 12 year old. Now he was bar mitzvah, a son of the covenant and part of the adult community. That may be why Mary and Joseph assumed he was in the group of travelers. He had certainly gone to Jerusalem with the women and children. Joseph might have thought he was still most comfortable there. But now he was eligible to be with the men, and Mary might have expected he wanted to be with them. But with the teachers at the Temple, he had his first chance at an adult experience. He was thoroughly engrossed. He lost track of time. He wasn’t thinking about his parents. When they came looking for him, he expected them to recognize what was obvious to him. “Didn’t you know I must be in my Father’s house? Where else would I be?” Our New Testament theology (Hebrews 4:15) tells us that Jesus was without sin. I would conclude from that that for Jesus to be an ordinary 12 year old was not sinful.
C. Yes, Luke tells us that those who heard Jesus were “amazed at his understand and answers.” But Luke does not suggest that this was supernatural, but rather Jesus’ emerging awareness of his own unique identity. Luke completely avoided the extraordinary exploits of the legendary stories. For Luke, Jesus was the embodiment of the greatness of God in a very ordinary 12 year old boy.
IV. Last week we saw that Mary’s Magnificat was an improvisation on Hannah’s song when she gave Samuel for a life of service to the Lord. Luke again connects the child Jesus with the child Samuel when he wrote that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” I can’t help but ask how anyone would know if they or anyone else was increasing in favor with the Lord.
A. Ambition for political, economic or even religious power disqualifies for spiritual leadership. Nevertheless, some humble folk have been remarkable public leaders: Moses and David, Deborah and Esther, Barnabas and Timothy, Benedict and Francis, Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa. But more often than not, spiritual giants are like Anna and Simeon who got a glimpse of God’s redemption when Joseph and Mary came to dedicate the infant Jesus at the Temple. Just as God’s greatness was hidden in Jesus’ ordinary childhood, God’s greatness floods our ordinary lives with light.
B. If 12 year old Jesus was increasing in divine favor, I ask myself, how is a 66 year old Norm increasing in God’s favor? Or how is my granddaughter Elizabeth, who just turned 6 this week, increasing in God’s favor? The spiritual life is not a competition sport! It is not about who is ahead. It is about being in process with God right where you are right now, wherever that is.
C. A Jewish tradition has grown out of the Talmud, which is commentary on the Law of Moses, and says that in every generation 36 righteous people “greet the Shechinah” – God’s glorious presence. The Hebrew for 36 is lamed vav, and these 36 people are called Lamed Vavniks. They are also called Tzaddikim or Nistarim which means “concealed ones.” The legend says that at all times 36 humble, righteous people keep the world from coming to an end with their prayers. No one knows who the Lamed Vavniks are. They themselves do not know that they are Lamed Vavniks, nor do they know who any of the other Lamed Vavniks are. Their spiritual responsibility is monumental, because the tradition is that if there are not enough qualified people to make up the 36, the world will end in disaster. Thus, everyone should act as though they were a Lamed Vavnik and lead holy, humble lives of prayer for the sake of all humanity. Throughout history since biblical times, God has worked through small, hidden remnants of faithful but ordinary people. As ordinary as you may feel, who knows, you may be a Christian Lamed Vavnik!