A teenage sitter arrives to watch three grade school children. The parents are in a hurry to get to their dinner reservation and quickly explain bedtime for all is 9:00, no exceptions. The parents leave and the sitter settles into the evening by keeping the kids entertained. At 9:00 she sends them to bed and begins to text her friends. Just then she hears one of the children creeping down the stairs. “Get back in bed” she insists. A few minutes later the same child, moving as quietly as possible, tries to come downstairs again, but is caught and sent back. This happens a third and then a fourth time. The sitter is getting frustrated when suddenly the doorbell rings. “I am Mrs. Brown from next door. Is my son here?” “No”, says the sitter. Then a voice from upstairs yells down, “Mom, I’m up here, but the sitter won’t let me leave!”
For what it’s worth, this morning’s gospel reading is the only information we have about Jesus from the time when, as a toddler, his family settles in Nazareth to when he appears before John to be baptized. All we have is this one story to give us clues about what most certainly was a formative twenty-five year span in his life.
We want to know about the childhood lives of great people. We long to learn about the experiences that carved out who they became. Mason Locke Weems didn’t quite understand this when he set out in 1800 to write a biography about George Washington, who had died the year earlier. The book was wildly popular, but the reading public demanded to know more about Washington’s childhood. Since Weems had no real way to garner such information, he simply made up stories to demonstrate a link between Washington’s private virtue and public greatness. The most endearing and enduring of these myths involved a cherry tree, which first appeared in the book’s fifth edition published in 1806. “I cannot tell a lie” satiated the American public’s hunger to know more about the childhood of their deeply admired leader.
Early Christians thirsted to learn more about Jesus’ early years so about 150 years after his life someone wrote what is now referred to as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. As one commentator puts is, it portrays the child Jesus as part healer, part genius, and part brat. Here is a short summary of just a few of its stories:
· The infant Jesus, while lying in the cradle, speaks and tells his mother he is the Son of God.
· A sorcerer turns a man into a mule. When Mary learns of it, she puts baby Jesus on the mule’s back and it instantly returns into a man.
· A leper is healed by washing in Jesus’ bathwater.
· At the age of seven Jesus makes various animal figures out of clay and brings them to life.
· Joseph spends two years making a throne for the king of Jerusalem, but in the end it is too small, so Jesus miraculously makes it larger.
· When a snake bites a boy, Jesus orders it to suck back the poison. The boy is cured and the serpent bursts open.
· Jesus is accused of killing a boy by throwing him off a roof. He brings the child back to life who then exonerates him.
· A child knocks over a pitcher of water that Jesus has fetched. Jesus curses the child, whose body immediately withers and dies.
· When Jesus is sent to school he ends up teaching the schoolmaster. When a second teacher raises his hand to strike Jesus for insubordination, that teacher falls dead.
· After Jesus turns twelve and remains behind in the Temple, he begins to conceal his miraculous powers until the time after he is baptized.
As we say today, these stories, and the many others like them, simply don’t pass the smell test for authenticity.
Although Luke’s story is all we have in the gospels, it tells us much. First, we learn Mary and Joseph made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem each year for the Passover festival. Just like our vacations today, a family pilgrimage was expensive. Food and lodging cost money. The Temple had a required system of sacrifices and offerings. Perhaps most costly was lost economic opportunity. If Joseph was not working he was not earning a living. Still, these two parents deeply valued the religious and spiritual dimension of life and it was for them a priority.
Next we learn these journeys were not made in isolation. They were communal events involving extended family and neighbors. That Mary and Joseph left Jerusalem believing their twelve-year-old was walking with others suggests Jesus grew up in a close-knit community where numerous people contributed much to his formation.
One of the most important things a parish family offers is a place where multi-generational relationships can flourish. Our seasoned members are rich with wisdom and perspective while our young members keep us hopeful and engaged. I am always thrilled when I see these relationships develop organically over the course of our being God’s people together. I remember when Polly Freel used to make her way around the Nave floor to pass the peace with Doc Thomas. I once asked him how the relationship got started and he said he had no idea. Polly simply chose to greet him. But I can tell you this, passing the Peace with Polly got Doc to church week in and week out, even when he was tired, weak, and in pain.
Here is one final thing we learn from today’s reading: In his exchange with his parents, we get a glimpse of Jesus trying to work out his own sense of identity. He knows he is a person: the son of Mary and Joseph. He knows he has a place: he is from Nazareth. And he knows he has something to do: he is a carpenter in training. Beyond all of this, he is also pondering a deeper sense of identity and purpose, which he expresses as “I must be in my Father’s house.” He is engaged in the very human challenge of trying to discern why he is here, what he is supposed to do, and what difference his life will make. He will continue to live with these questions for another decade and a half until he presents himself to John to be baptized.
Jesus’ quest is a gentle reminder of this important, on-going work we all must do. If I asked you to tell me about you, most likely you would pass on information about what you do, who is in your life, where you are from, and so forth. But can these surface details and facts alone describe who you are?
You are unique. No one else is exactly like you. Some of who you are was predetermined by your biology (nature). Other aspects of you developed as you related to the environment around you (nurture). Our Christian faith reminds us that God has been at work in and through all of this; that you are who you as a result of God’s love for you; that you are special to God.
So who are you? What are your core values? How would you describe your core sense of identity? If you find yourself stammering when trying to articulate an answer to these questions, you are not alone. Many people may never have had the opportunity to engage in meaningful self-reflection in order to construct a way to understand and then describe who they are. If God has created you to be you, and if you are not able to say to yourself “This is who I am”, how can you evaluate what kind of job you are doing at being you?
If these questions intrigue or puzzle you, I hope you will join me on Wednesday evenings in Lent was we create a space to do the work of exploring and reflecting on who we are.
Luke’s story gives us a glimpse of Jesus learning and growing. The early church denounced the heresy of Gnosticism, which, among other things, held that Jesus’ brain contained all the knowledge of God from birth. The early church said no, Jesus had to grow; he had to learn as we have to learn. Beyond the story of his birth and today’s reading, it was not Luke’s purpose to describe how Jesus became who he turned out to be. Luke was intent on telling us about the life of Jesus after his baptism, about his teachings, his death, and his resurrection. All he says about the years before this is Jesus went with his parents back to Nazareth where increased in wisdom and years, and gained favor in the eyes of God and those who knew him.
And that remains a good task for each of us, no matter how old you are. As you increase in years, may you grow in wisdom, gain esteem in the eyes of others, and be a pleasing delight in the sight of God who created you to be you.