Monday, December 28, 2015

Temple Tossed

Here is the sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 2:41-52:

Today, and for the next few weeks we are going to find ourselves in a sort of time-warp.  We celebrated Jesus’ birth just two days ago, and yet we find him today at the age of twelve, then next week we jump back to when he was somewhere around the age of two, and then the week after that we jump ahead to the time when he is about 30 years old.  I don’t know if the group who puts together the lectionary readings really thought about the reality of today’s passage in regards to the holidays, but it’s totally appropriate because it starts with Jesus’ family going to Jerusalem for Passover, one of the high holies, when Jerusalem and the Temple would be packed with people and everything would be a little crazy, and then everyone went home and just three days later everything is calm and quiet again.  There is plenty of space for Jesus to be in the Temple wiling away the days.  The same is true for the church, on this Sunday which is traditionally one of the lowest attended worship services for the year, all the guests we had for Christmas Eve have gone home, or are close to going home, everything has turned back to normal, there’s plenty of seating available and it’s a little quiet again.

This is a passage that is very unusual for the gospels, especially for Luke’s gospel.  First because this story makes no sense in relation to Luke’s birth narrative which precedes it.  After all, it is in Luke’s narrative that Mary is visited by an angel and told that the child she will carry is special, and Mary responds by giving us the magnificat, her beautiful poetic response.  It is in Luke’s gospel that John the Baptist, who has his own miraculous conception story, is a cousin of Jesus who leaps in his mother’s womb when his mother Elizabeth and Mary meet.  It is in Luke’s narrative that the shepherds are sent to Bethlehem by an angel and come to pay homage to the child in a manger, and we are told “Mary treasured all these things in her heart.”  And it is in Luke’s narrative that when Joseph and Mary present Jesus at the Temple shortly after his birth and make an offering for their first born son that Anna and Simeon both make claims about who Jesus is and what he means to Israel.  And yet if we just read today’s passage none of this seems to have taken place, or if they did then Mary and Joseph have totally forgotten about them after only twelve years, which seems very unlikely.  Mary even refers to Joseph as Jesus’ father.   This story just simply doesn’t match up with what has come before it.

Now there are usually two responses to this.  The first is to try and jump through a lot of hoops in order to explain how in actuality there is not a discrepancy, that even though Mary and Joseph knew all the stuff, they just didn’t understand, etc.  The other response is simply to say that Luke has taken another story that was circulating about Jesus and put it into his narrative without being concerned that the stories matched each other.  Let us remember that none of the gospel writers are writing narrative histories, this is not a biography of Jesus.  Instead they are telling a theological story, which is a very different undertaking, and in that process the facts of the stories, and their ability to hang together coherently simply are not as important as the meaning of the stories themselves.  As William of Occam, a Franciscan Friar who was a theologian and philosopher said, in what is known as Occam’s razor, in looking at problems, the simplest answer is not only usually the easiest but it is also usually the best, and I think that is what is going on here.

Which leads us into the second reason why this story is unusual for the gospels, and that is because this is the only story of Jesus as a youth that we have in the Bible.  We know that there were stories of Jesus’ childhood circulating in the early church because we find those stories in some non-canonical gospels.  Some of the stories are sort of benign, such as Jesus making birds out of clay and then turning them into real birds, or one of my favorites, Jesus lengthens a board that Joseph has cut too short for its purpose.  You don’t need to measure twice and cut once if you have that as an option.  But some of the stories are a little less benign, such as Jesus causing a boy who jostles him to die, and then striking blind those who complain about him.  It seems likely that Luke was familiar with these stories, and so he decided to put one into his gospel.  But he did not do this casually.

There are several purposes for this story to be included.  The first purpose it serves is to do exactly what it does, which is to give us a story of Jesus as a young man of twelve.  In the ancient world, in telling stories of great men, there would be a story about their birth with some miraculous elements, then there would be one story about the child as a twelve year old, and then the story would pick-up with the main character as an adult.  This pattern is found in stories about Siddhartha, better known as the Buddha, Cyrus the Great of Persia, Osiris in Egypt, and most importantly for the early church, Caesar Augustus.  Augustus too had a miraculous birth story and held the same titles that were also given to Jesus in the gospels and by the church, and thus this story had not only theological significance, but political significance as well. Although lost to us, the people who first heard these stories would have been very aware of the themes and common story telling motifs and would have known what they meant.

But, what is also striking about this story, especially in comparison to the other stories of Jesus as a youth, is how plain and ordinary it is.  It doesn’t tell of miracles or remarkable things, and it also doesn’t tell the story that people often think this story tells.  If you look at paintings of this scene, especially from the Renaissance, you will see a portrayal of Jesus standing and teaching the leaders of the Temple who are sitting at his feet.  Even the art work we chose for the bulletin this morning is entitled, “Jesus teaches in the Temple.” And, in the only sermon I can remember hearing on this passage, the minister was talking about Jesus’ perfect knowledge and how bored and yet also frustrated Jesus must have been as a youth knowing he had all the answers.  Now we’ve had a 14 year old in the house so have seen a youth who thought he was smarter than everyone else and knew all the answers, but this was more than just the normal teenager behavior.  But that is not what is taking place here.  In fact, if this story was to be heard without any of the birth stories which precede it, which is how I believe it was probably originally created, we would see how ordinary and yet extraordinary it is and really come to appreciate what place it is holding in the overall gospel narrative, because it serves several very specific and important purposes.

The first is to indicate that Mary and Joseph are devout Jews.  They are doing the things that are required or expected of them by Jewish law, including traveling to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem for the most important Jewish holidays.  And, we are told that they did this every year, and that it is Mary and Joseph who go.  They are not doing this for Jesus, or their other children, they do it because they consider it important for their own faith, and the kids go along with them because that’s what they have to do.  Within the gospel of Luke, the temple also plays a significant role, with the gospel both beginning and ending in the Temple.  This episode also serves as a foretaste for what is to come in Jesus’ ministry and life.

In this story, Jesus is interacting with the teachers at the Temple in what appears to be a very positive way.  But later, he will interact, and have question and answer sessions with the teachers, but in adversarial roles.  In addition, we are told that after realizing that Jesus was not with them that Mary and Joseph looked for him for three days, before they found him.  Now some commentators say not to read too much into this because this phrase is not the one Luke uses in reference to the three days between Jesus death and resurrection, but I’m one who feels that the gospel writers were very deliberate in what they included and what they did not include and therefore I do not think that Luke’s phrase of three days is just coincidental.  Instead I think it is a direct reference to Jesus’ death and resurrection which also takes place after another pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover, and ends with a group of people leaving without Jesus, although this time they know why, and a very small group returning after three days, but this time instead of finding Jesus they instead find the empty tomb, and what better time to remind us that we are not a Christmas people.  Even though sometimes it doesn’t seem that way, Christmas is not the most important Christian holiday, in fact it pales in comparison, because we are an Easter people.

What this passage also reminds us of is Jesus’ humanity.  As I already said, this passage, for some reason, often seems to be used to talk about and highlight the divinity of Jesus, but in doing so they have to distort the story.  While the story does say that all who heard him were amazed, it says this in relation to the line before in which Jesus is not teaching, but instead listening and asking questions, and then the last line says “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years.”  That means that Jesus, at the age of 12, did not know it all, but instead was still learning, which we’ll return to in just a moment.  What this passage also emphasizes is that Jesus had a family of origin, a mother and father, and that they did not always get along, that Mary would get exasperated with Jesus just as all parents do with their children, and that he is also connected to a greater community which surrounds him with their presence and their teaching and their protection, as Mary and Joseph had assumed that it was amongst this group of relatives and friends with which he had been traveling as they made their way back to Nazareth.  But it is in sitting at the feet of others, not just his parents, that Jesus is able to ask questions and to learn about the faith and about God.  This is a communal exercise we are engaged in here, it is for a specific reason that Jesus says, wherever two or more are gathered in my name there I am amongst them.  This is serious work that we do when we gather together, but it’s also realizing that we are never done learning about God, about scripture, about our faith.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said of this passage, “It plainly follows, that though a man were pure, even as Christ was pure, still he would have room to increase in holiness, and in consequence thereof to increase in the favor, as well as in the love of God.”  That means that if even Jesus could increase in knowledge and wisdom, then surely there is room for us to grow in our faith as well.  That we never cease to ever stop sitting at the feet of the masters asking questions, engaging in conversations, in order to increase what we know and to deepen our faith.  We never graduate from Christian education, a phrase I don’t like, but instead prefer to use the term Christian formation, because we are never done being formed, never done becoming Christians.  And it turns out that not stopping our learning is not only good for our faith, but it’s good for our brains as well.

Eleanor Maguire was studying spatial intelligence, which is what IQ tests are said to measure, and so did brain scans of London can drivers and non-cab drivers.  To drive a cab in London is not just a matter of showing up one day and starting to drive.  Instead they have to know what is called “The Knowledge.”  “Within a six mile radius of Charing Cross Station, some twenty-five thousand streets connect and bisect at every possible angle, dead-ending into parks, monuments, shops and private homes.”  To become licensed, cabbies must learn all of these driving oddities on which they are tested.  So Maguire did MRIs on the brains of London cab drivers and on those of a control group, and what she found that was cab drivers had a greatly enlarged posterior hippocampus, which is not a college for hippos, but instead the part of the brain that specializes in spatial representations.  While this was surprising in itself, what she also found was that the longer the cabbies had been driving, the larger that part of the brain was.  Their brains actually got bigger by studying more and doing more, by not thinking they knew it all already and could stop learning.

There are lots of ways we can continue to grow in our faith.  One of them is by coming to worship.  Another is through reading and studying scripture.  In 2016 we would like to challenge everyone to read through the Bible in the entire year, and so starting on January 1, rather than scripture passages that correspond to the Sunday readings, there will be instead chapters from the Old and New Testaments each day, normally 3-4, and if you follow through on December 31 of next year you will have read the entire Bible.  I really hope you will take on this challenge.  Another way we learn more is by meeting with others in small groups to discuss our faith, and also to take Christian formation classes.  One of the goals we have been working on is setting the expectation that everyone in the church will take at least one Christian formation class throughout the course of the year.  But to do that we not only need to have those classes available but also well publicized, and with a clear path of what to do and what is available, and that is one of the things that our HCI team is working on and you will be hearing a lot more about in the new year.

John Wesley said, “Every one, though” they may be “born of God in an instant, yea and sanctified in an instant, yet undoubtedly grows by slow degrees…”  If Jesus could learn from others and grow in wisdom and in years, surely we too can learn from others, and teach others, as we continue to grow in years and to grow in our faith.  I hope that in 2016 we will learn to engage with each other, engage with scripture, engage with God, and engage with our faith in new and exciting ways.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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