Monday, December 31, 2018

Sermon: "Lessons of a Brief Adolescence", Isaiah 9:2-7/Luke 2:41-52



Today, in the perpetual strangeness that is the Revised Common Lectionary, we’re doing a little bit of time travelling. While we celebrated the baby Jesus’ birth on Monday, today, on the sixth day of Christmas, we discover that he’s already aged 12 years, and next week on Epiphany we’ll jump back ten years to his encounter with the magi at about 2 years old, until finally we arrive at his adult baptism on January 13. When you only have 52 weeks to cover 33 years of life, things can get a little bit wonky sometimes.

I’m gonna be honest with you: I really struggled with the Luke reading this week. Part of it is because, as clergy, the whiplash of having to write three sermons in eight days can really take it out of you. But part of it is because we’ve been building up to Christ’s arrival for four weeks, waiting and preparing and holding off on premature celebration. And now that we’ve finally arrived at Christmastide and have twelve glorious days to revel in Jesus’ birth, the lectionary abruptly insists that we skip ahead 12 years to Jesus’ adolescence.

This is particularly strange because, as a rule, we only tend to think about Jesus as either as a baby or as a full-grown man. Those are the two parts of his life that we know the most about through Scripture. This story in Luke is the only canonical account we have of anything in between those two life stages. While this anecdote of Jesus as an adolescent may seem out of place, it actually plays an important narrative role. Even though the gospel writers were primarily concerned with his adult life, the whole point of the incarnation thing means that Jesus took part in the full human experience, which includes his physical birth (which we observe quite well in the Christian tradition) as well as adolescence and growing up (which we tend to skip over).

We shouldn’t skip over this story, even though it may seem inconsequential, because transitions are important. Anyone who turned on the radio Wednesday morning after a month of non-stop Christmas music knows what I mean. It’s uniquely jarring to be abruptly dumped on the other side of the holidays without notice or warning. Even though WE all know that Christmas doesn’t end until Epiphany next week, the rest of the world seems to have moved on quickly. That’s because the rest of the world isn’t concerned about the implications of what happened on Christmas Day. But we are, and so we need to spend some time sitting with it and figuring out what comes next. And I think that this solitary account of Jesus’ adolescence can help us to do that.

The twelve-year-old Jesus that we encounter in this passage would have been at a crucial point of transition in his life. For a Jewish boy, the age of twelve would have been about when formal religious training began in earnest, and therefore when he began the transition from boy to man. So, although scripture indicates that his family made this same journey to Jerusalem every year, this particular occasion probably would have felt a little different to Jesus. That year, he might have felt less like a childish observer and more like he was taking part in the Passover festival as a real participant for the first time. From this perspective, it makes sense that he stayed behind in the temple: his excitement was so great that he didn’t want the Passover festival to end.

And yet, as significant an age as twelve might have been, Jesus’ parents still saw him as a child. And they weren’t entirely wrong; he may have been God incarnate, but Jesus was still living under Mary and Joseph’s roof, and he still only had twelve years of life experience, no matter how divine and inherently wise he was. By any measure—even his own, I imagine—Jesus was no longer a child, and yet still not an adult. He was somewhere in between.

And here WE are, smack dab in the exact middle of Christmastide, on the cusp of a new year. Just like twelve-year-old Jesus, we, too, are “somewhere in between”. I think part of the reason that the religious Christmas season is twelve days instead of one is that we NEED that time to really come to terms with what the events of Christmas Day mean for us, and how they’ll change our lives. Something big has happened. It hasn’t just happened in front of us for us to observe; it’s happened TO US for us to experience. As Isaiah puts it, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”[1] Think about what that means. For someone who has lived in complete darkness for their entire life, seeing a sudden, bright light is an earth-shattering experience. It changes absolutely everything about every aspect of life, from your ability to move around freely to the fear (or lack thereof) of your surroundings to how you perceive reality itself. The way you understand and encounter the world is necessarily transformed, simply by virtue of seeing and living in this light. That’s where we are in Christmastide: having heard the testimony of shepherds and angels and having experienced for ourselves this child that has been born for us, our world has been profoundly altered. We’ve been transformed by the light of God—and now we have to figure out what to do about it.

Like twelve-year-old Jesus, it’s natural for us to experience some growing pains as we work though this transition. The conflict with his anxious mother over his adventure in the temple is a natural consequence of his family adjusting to his shift from childhood to adulthood. It’s inevitable that transition leads to some conflict, major or minor, internal or otherwise. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing—even if it’s not how we’d prefer to spend the Christmas season. Most healthy growth resides in the tension of transition. Last week, we read Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”[2] If we want to grow spiritually—which I think we all do; it’s why we’re here—we need to be prepared to give up the old habits and fears of our spiritually infancy. We must give up what’s familiar in order to grow and take the next step. This is always an uncomfortable choice. It won’t be easy, but it’s a vitally important part of a successful spiritual adolescence.

Now, as intimidating as this prospect may seem, we should remember that this growth isn’t meant to happen all at once. That’s part of the gift of this lesson from Luke: it reminds us that even Jesus wasn’t born with the wisdom and understanding of a spiritual adult. He, too, listened and studied and grew. He found value in learning from his teachers and elders, instead of playing the “Son of God” card. He found value in sitting still and asking questions, instead of insisting he had the answers. He found value in pausing to cultivate his own understanding, to connect with his religious heritage, before jumping into spiritual adulthood. Jesus used his transition time to his full advantage. While we continue to bask in the glow of Emmanuel—God with us—we, too, have been gifted with the time to listen and learn so that we might be better prepared for what comes next.

And what comes next is no small thing: according to Isaiah, God is lifting the yoke of the people’s burden, breaking the rod of the oppressor, and bringing endless peace. As incredible as Jesus’ birth is, there’s even greater change on the horizon. God will establish and uphold this heavenly kingdom with justice and righteousness from this time onward and forevermore—but we need to be ready for it, so there’s still a LOT of preparation to be done. Adolescent Jesus probably knew that the life ahead of him wasn’t going to be easy, and that it would be filled with even more conflict and hardship than his twelve years had prepared him for. But he knew where he belonged and what he needed to do. Where the NRSV translation of Luke 2:49 reads, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” it could just as easily be translated as, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s interests?” [3] Even in the midst of his transition, Jesus knew his responsibilities and his priorities, and he was preparing for them the best way a twelve-year-old boy could.

So. While we (rightfully) remain in the Christmas spirit for another week, let’s not think of this as “arrested development”. We’re not stopped in place. Let’s think of this as the crucial, transitory adolescence of our liturgical year, and of our faith. This is our opportunity to reflect as we shift from what was begun on Christmas Day to what comes next. Let’s take a moment to discover what it is we need to do to prepare for God’s kingdom on earth. It’s a big leap to make, so we deserve a little bit of time to be spiritual teenagers. Let’s allow ourselves time to listen, learn, and grow so that when we jump into action, we know we’re ready to do exactly what God is calling us to do. Just as we followed a holy baby to a manger, let’s follow the wise example of this holy twelve-year-old boy. Amen.

[1] Isaiah 9:2, NRSV.
[2] 1 Corinthians 13:11, NRSV.
[3] Luke 2:49, NRSV.

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