A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on December 28, 2012.
The First Sunday after Christmas
I Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Psalm 148; Colossians 3:12-17
Bearing the title of “the Holy Family” is a lot to live up to. Perhaps this story of Jesus as a boy and of his parents as his human family helps us see them in the same way we look upon our own families. This story also helps us know the gospels have a deep understanding of family structures and parental expectations. They may be “the Holy Family,” but it’s still a very human story of the struggle of a teenage boy and his parents who are simply doing their very best.
Adolescence is the awkward passage of growth and maturity, of the long crossing of the threshold from childhood to adulthood. Maturity doesn’t happen in a single moment, and even if it’s marked in a community’s coming-of-age rituals, self-awareness is complicated for the one going through it. How old were you when you were growing up that you knew you had passed through those stages and come out on the other end?
In a birth story where a young teenage girl is pregnant with God’s child, maybe Jesus at twelve and abandoned by parents who don’t even miss him for three days is not a story about a little boy but rather it’s the story of a man-child putting his independence to test and perhaps testing with his own questions of faith.
Is there any single year in our lives with more change going on than at twelve? Our bodies and our minds and our souls are expanding their boundaries and we’re changing so fast it makes your head spin. Here’s a short list of those changes:
- Heightened sense of style/fashion – sense of what is in & what is out; strong feelings about your own “look”; in short, likely you’re paying attention to these things in a new way
- Marked by amazing intellectual growth – moved beyond simple thought structures and concrete thinking to now appreciate & understand metaphors, similes using “like” or “as;” capability for conceptual thinking flourishes; new appreciation of complex thought patterns such as irony, cynicism, & a fresh sense of humor (not always a good thing)
- Can verbalize strong arguments based on your own viewpoints with a wide-ranging vocabulary; that vocabulary includes abusive language & surprising cruelty
- Experiencing a growing body: sweat glands, skin secretions, and sexuality in body & mind, longer limbs, bigger feet, anxiety over your body; fully aware of attractions
- Seemingly self-absorbed & outwardly irresponsible for self & one’s world
- Widening awareness of a larger world; sense of “my community”; beginning to one’s family tree and the story before their story began
- Contradiction of empathy & narcissism
- Large capabilities beyond your own reckoning – capable of work, working on a team on big projects utilizing their strong bodies and big hearts
- On the spiritual front: Capable of mercy & kindness; experiencing forgiveness personally & interpersonally; balancing rules & expectations, judgment & grace; exploring purpose & mission; beginning to nurture a spiritual outlook to life, a larger sense of God in the world
This story of young Jesus in the Temple is the only fragment of sacred memory of his adolescence in the New Testament. There’s just this one story of Jesus remaining behind his family as they leave town for Nazareth, their home. He’s so engrossed in his conversation with the teachers in the Temple, he doesn’t know or doesn’t care that they left without him. It’s an incarnational story if there ever was one … Jesus standing among us, speaking the truth with us, and asking questions. Emmanuel, God with us, as a young child in the Temple discussing the Law with the elders.
I’m curious, why is this story saved for us in Luke’s gospel? I think it’s safe to say there’s an obvious lesson for us out of this story: Jesus has already laid the foundation for what will become of the remainder of his life. Already we can see that the seeds for his life and his ministry have been planted. Maybe it’s too simplistic, but someone once observed that the truth about us is that we become more and more of what we already are.
I will admit that it is too convenient for us to oversimplify each other … to paint each other with such broad brush strokes that they don’t do us justice and to deal with only the surface aspects of our lives. After all, all of us change and grow. We make choices in our lives that shape us and steer us in new and even unpredictable directions. Why, even the gospel is built on the notion that all of us need to change the direction of our lives. The power of God’s forgiveness offers us that and more.
But it’s also equally true that there are things about us that never seem to change. Things about how we think and feel. Things about how we respond to life. All of that is set for us earlier in life than we want to admit. Our personalities are set in early childhood and then we spend the rest of our days living out the responses of that life-view. If you are a “half-empty” or a “half-full” person, more than likely you’ve been that way since your childhood. You end up being shaped and formed by parents, friends and family, circumstances, and by the choices you make in deciding how you will respond to the life that’s yours to live. Whether you buy into the “nature” or “nurture” argument of the development of self, the truth still holds that we settle those things early in our childhood and then spend the rest of our lives living out those choices.
Everyone needs a guiding thought, a central theme that seems to mark the boundaries around their world so they can understand it. What drives our need to become? James Hillman, Jungian therapist, draws upon a dominating image or analogy of what he calls the theory of the motivation to become. To support his thesis he draws upon the analogy of the acorn, which he describes this way: “Is not the (inner) motivation, the push (that exists) in the acorn of the oak – or, better, the oakness of the acorn? Oaks bear acorns, but (likewise) acorns are pregnant with oaks.”
In summary to his big idea of oaks and acorns, here’s how he describes it: “Each person enters the world called,” The acorn theory is thus “about calling, about fate, about character, about innate image.” To what were you called? In what way was your life’s purpose evident early and then grown and maturity led you toward being?
How do we test this notion? How is it we know such things? It comes from “reading life backward.” “Reading life backward” means we recognize the power in the co-presence of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Your development as a person is not merely a process or development. You are that essential image that develops, if it develops at all. The psalmist said it, “We spend our years as a tale that is told” (Psalm 90:9).
What can we tell about Jesus by the age of twelve? Several things stand out: Jesus was already at home in the activities of the Temple. He was no stranger to the chief activity of the teachers who were daily involved in teaching the Law to the people. It was customary to argue over the nuances of the Law, each seeking to help the rest to understand it and, ultimately, to live it.
I think it’s obvious that Jesus knew the teachers, and probably, they knew him. He was not stranger to the Temple even though he and his family lived in Nazareth, some 60 or 65 miles to the north. The story gives us a hint when it says that “every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.” What I think I hear is that the importance of the Temple and the teaching of the Law were instilled in him through his childhood by parents who thought it important that they participate in the spiritual life of the Temple. These were parents who did not just hope that their child loved God. They guided and nurtured him by seeing that they were there together for the high and holy days. They made a commitment to journey to Jerusalem so that they could worship God on the Passover.
Does the spiritual vitality of the parents spill over and help the child to also learn to love God and to want to do the will of God? No doubt. It may be the one lasting gift you give your child. I think kids have a great capacity for loving God but that love is usually activated and turned loose in the world by parents who demonstrate their love for God in real ways.
This story also helps us understand the radical nature of Jesus when he begins his ministry. In the beginning, when Jesus called his disciples, it is clear that he had a sharp idea of what being a follower was to be like. It was a hard discipleship that he expected of his believers. He wanted his followers to know that they were being called to a deep sense of commitment that would demand nothing but their best. But followers must have leaders. And leaders must demonstrate what it is that they expect.
Jesus was already showing signs of being committed to the Kingdom of God. That kind of commitment demanded that one be willing to shift all their attention to the business at hand. Jesus was already showing that he had a deep and abiding commitment to the business of “being about his father’s business.” What the adult Jesus asked of his followers, the child Jesus was already demonstrating in his young life.
Jesus, the little man of twelve, was already paying more attention to his Heavenly Father than to his earthly parents. He was already cutting the apron strings of his mother and moving out into the world where he belonged. His direction was already pointed out into a sinful world that desperately needed a breath of hope. Jesus, Son of God, was already headed into the human predicament as the incarnational presence of God to redeem and to save. All the signs were there … copresent in the beginning.
 James Hillman, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Calling and Commitment, New York: Warner Books, 1996, 27
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).