Left Behind

1st Samuel 2: 18-20, 26

Luke 2: 41-52

Rev. Barrett Ingram

December 27, 2020

Assuming you would get an answer, what question would you most like to ask God?

We all have personal questions concerning God’s will for our lives: what should I do with my life, what job should I take, whom should I marry, where should I invest my money (especially these days)? Then there are broader, more existential questions: Why does God allow bad thing to happen to good people? Why is there suffering, prejudice, terrorism, violence and hate? And the age-old zinger: What is the meaning of life? And then we have our religious questions like, “How does the trinity work?” and “What does this or that passage of the Bible mean?” I don’t know if God is going to allow us a Q & A session when we get to heaven, but I’ve been accumulating a list of questions. And one of those questions springs from our Gospel lesson. Whether you are a believer or not, Jesus is one of the most important figures in world history, yet we know precious little about his childhood. What exactly was going on when Jesus was a child and a young adult?

Unfortunately, the Gospels don’t offer us much of an answer. For people like me (who want the details) there just isn’t that much here. Maybe that’s why religious scholars are always trying to read between the lines and come up with a portrait of the “historical Jesus.” Even in the early church, there were strange stories that grew up as an attempt to explain what this Jesus was like as a child. One particular story from this extra-biblical/apocryphal literature that I came across had Jesus, as a child, “striking down his difficult playmates and then raising them up again or shaping sparrows out of clay and bringing them to life.”[1] These stories are fun – magical and whimsical – but not very believable.

Fortunately, Luke spares us the miraculous magic show. In today’s Gospel, we find a very human situation. We meet Mary, Joseph and Jesus as they make their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover. The Law of Moses required all Jewish men who lived within twenty miles of Jerusalem to make this journey every year. Nazareth is about 80 miles from Jerusalem, so it’s a sign of their religious devotion that Mary and Joseph make this trip annually! And now, the twelve-year-old Jesus, having had his bar mitzvah, was now of age to attend. In telling us this story, Luke is trying to make it clear that Jesus was in fact an obedient Jew – a true Israelite.

Passover was a seven-day religious festival. With people arriving from all over the region, we can image there was a lot of excitement and commotion in Jerusalem. Now the crowds are making their way home. We don’t know all of the details, but we might imagine that people had broken off into smaller groups, carrying on lively conversations with friends and family as they made their way home. The children were gathered playing together. It is likely that Mary and Joseph assumed that Jesus was off playing with some of his friends. It wasn’t until the group stopped traveling for the day that they realized that Jesus was left behind. His parents go back to Jerusalem and after three days of frantic searching find him in the Temple. The Bible records a rather sanitized/polite version of what this upset Jewish mamma says to her teenage boy, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” Oh, don’t you wish your parents had reprimanded you like that? No, I’m sure mother Mary – in all her piety – had a bit more to say to young Jesus than that! And then Jesus answers with the only recorded words from his childhood (49): “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?”

Years ago, I was home visiting my parents for Christmas, and I had my Dad read this passage. He said to me in characteristic bluntness, “You know, he sounds like a smart aleck twelve-year-old to me.” Now I don’t know if this is how Mary and Joseph took Jesus’ words, but the Methodist preacher Peter Storey said that it did not surprise him at all that when Jesus went back with his parents to Nazareth, he “was obedient to them.”[2]

Well, what is all this about? Here we are on the last Sunday of 2020, the first Sunday after Christmas. What are we to make of it? I think this story is about growing up – it’s the process of maturing in the faith. The text says that Jesus grew older, but it also says he grew wiser. And no matter how old or young we are, there is as much need for us to do the same. From that general idea, I offer two thoughts. Today is a “low Sunday,” so instead of three points, I’ll just give two.

The first thought is that our faith is always connected to community. Faith does not occur in a vacuum, and we do not nurture our faith apart from community. And the primary community in which we develop our faith is the family – both the family of origin and the family of faith.

Our text tells us (41), “Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.” They went because they loved God. They wanted their children to love God too, so they went as a family. They visited the temple. They made their sacrifices. They paid their homage.

Perhaps God chose Mary and Joseph to be Mom and Dad to Jesus, in part, because they were the kind of people who would make this journey every year. God wanted Jesus to grow up with parents who loved God. Like every child, Jesus had lots to learn––and God wanted him to learn it from Godly parents. Someone wisely noted that “our values are caught before they’re taught.” We learn far more by example. Actions speak louder than words. In 1990, Barbara Bush gave a notable commencement address at Wellesley College. She offered the graduates these words:

As important as your obligation as

a doctor, a lawyer or a business leader will be,

you are a human being first,

and those human connections

with spouses, with children, with friends

are the most important investments you will ever make.

At the end of your life, you will never regret

not having passed one more test,

winning one more verdict,

closing one more deal.

You will regret time not spent

with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent.

Our success as a society depends not

on what happens in the White House

but on what happens inside your house.

What is of great concern today are all the children who grow up without the benefit of a Christian education – and increasingly without any exposure to religion at all in the home. What about those children who have never heard that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves; that we are to do to others, as we would have others do to us? What about those children who never learn the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount? Where will they get their values? It’s frightening to think that aside from family, television and the latest social media app might be the only sources of values…

Like many of you, my parents made sure that I went to Sunday school and church. And, I was blessed to have good Sunday school teachers, men and women who invested their time and talents trying to form our unruly lot into Christians. And I still remember my third grade Sunday school teacher, Fred Rickman, who turned the chore of learning the books of the Bible into a fun game. Those lessons have stayed with me all these years. My fifth grade Sunday school teacher, Nancy Melton, is a professional artist. She and her co-teacher, Edna Breaux, would find creative/artistic ways to teach us about the Bible and the Christian faith. You have your stories, too, of those who nurtured your faith. But so many miss out on that today.

Children, when given the opportunity, have a great capacity for learning. Jesus was found “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” It was the precocious Jesus who amazed all who heard his answers because of his understanding. Even his parents did not fully understand all that he said to them.

There is a second part to this narrative, and it is more implicit. But it is this: We need to live out of our God-given calling. Peter Storey refers to this as the “stirrings of divinity.” He said that since we struggle to understand the Christian doctrine that Jesus was at the same time both “fully human and fully God,” then “it should not be surprising that the Jesus child wrestled with his identity too.”[3]

If you were listening carefully to the Old Testament lesson, especially verse 26, you probably noted the similarities of language. Luke is using the story in First Samuel to frame his narrative. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, gave her son to the LORD, at which time he went to live in the temple. In similar fashion, Mary and Joseph dedicate Jesus to the Lord at the temple in Jerusalem. Samuel became aware of the special mission God had for him while he was in the temple. So, it is likely that Luke is at least hinting to us that Jesus began to understand who he was with this encounter in the temple.

An essential part of Christian growth is getting to the place where we understand our identity – our calling in life. As one writer has put it, “We too must work out who we are, not by birth, but by God’s generous grace.”[4] God has given us all gifts and talents that we need to use in order to fulfill our calling. William Barclay says,

Every (person) who ever came into this world

was sent into this world by God to do some special task.

Every (person) is, as it has been put, a “dream of God”.

That task need not be a task which is great

as the world uses the word great.

It may be to care for a child, to make someone else happy,

to teach someone’s mind, to cure someone’s body,

to bring sunshine into the lives of others

across a counter or in an office,

to make a home.

As Christians, we have an understanding of doing our work – whatever that work may be – for the Lord. The Apostle Paul reminds us (Colossians 3:23), “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord…” The Protestant reformer Martin Luther expanded the idea of vocation beyond the church, so that our faith influences every sphere of our lives. He said, “If [a man] is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden me do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor.”[5]

No one said it would be easy – working for God. Even Jesus, at the end of his life, struggled with his calling. You will remember that in the Garden of Gethsemane facing a sure sentence of death and judgment, he prayed, “if thou be willing, remove this cup from me.” But he went on, “nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” Being a Christian isn’t easy. The words of this enigmatic Savior are constantly confronting us, just as they confronted his earthly parents, Mary and Joseph.

He calls us not just to love our neighbors, but to love our enemies, too. …to love the un-lovable. Truth be told, none of us wants to do any of that. It’s not a natural inclination. It’s so much easier to play it safe and do what we already know how to do. But to be a Christ-follower is to take the risk and accept the challenge of going with Jesus, even when we’re not sure where that will lead us. And the joy is that we are a part of a community of faith where we can struggle together, so that we can learn to say, “not my will, but thine, be done.”

I don’t know where you are in terms of your Christian growth. Ultimately, that’s between you and God. I do know that each and every one of us is a child of God. You have God-given abilities, gifts and talents. When you take what God has given you – whether it is great of small – and use it to the best of your ability, for God’s glory, then you, like Jesus, will grow “in divine and human favor.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1994), pg. 74

[2] “Stirrings of Divinity” in The Christian Century (vol 117 No. 35, Dec. 13, 2000)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Martin Luther, “Sermon in the Castle Church at Weimar” (25 October 1522, Saturday after the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity)