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Sunday Worship 21 January | Jesus in the Temple: Part Two


Luke 2:41-52 (NIV)
Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 
After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”
“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them.
Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.


Last week was ‘Jesus in the Temple: Part One’, as Mary and Joseph took the newborn Christ to be presented according to the Law, and Simeon and Anna recognised him as the revelation and salvation of God. I know for some people that story raised some really interesting questions about Jesus’ childhood, what it was like for Mary and Joseph to raise this extraordinary son. Today we have ‘Jesus in the Temple: Part Two’, which gives us another brief insight into family life, and in many ways it is surprisingly ordinary. Many parents will know the panic of losing sight of their child in a crowd, and the urge to both embrace them and chastise them for scaring you when they are found. And most parents will also know how bittersweet it feels when your children astonish you, and you suddenly realise how grown up they have become. But perhaps the ordinariness should not surprise us. As the priest and theologian Sam Wells points out, Jesus spent three hours on the cross and three years travelling as an itinerant preacher and miracle worker, but before that he spent three decades living a normal life. We miss so much of the wonder of the incarnation when we forget that Jesus came first of all to live with us and as one of us.


There is one particular question that this passage and the reading we heard last week raise for me. Luke ends his account of the presentation in the temple by saying that “the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him”. And then he ends the story of Jesus debating in the temple by saying that “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man”. It is easy enough to understand how Jesus grew in strength and stature - that just means he got bigger, as children generally do. And I can understand how he grew in favour with those around him, as he proved himself to be a young man of intellect and character. But what does it mean to say that Jesus grew in wisdom? And how could he grow in favour with God? Perhaps it means that Jesus had to learn how to be human, and had to develop a new kind of relationship with (or perhaps we should say within) God. That is a fascinating idea, but it's also very comforting, because if even Jesus was a work in progress, then it's absolutely fine that we are too.


Let’s go back to the beginning and get into the narrative of the story now. We are told that Mary and Joseph travelled to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover every year. You might think that raising God would satisfy their religious obligations, but they were still part of a community of faith, and their faith was expressed and developed within and through that community. God may have been at home, but God was also in the temple and the synagogue and in the sharing of worship and fellowship. I think that's really important for us to understand. Christians often talk about having a personal relationship with God, and that is a vital part of our faith, but it doesn't mean that our faith is entirely personal. We need community too. I remember someone explaining to me as a child that being a Christian is like being a piece of coal. We won't burn as hot or as long as we should if we are on our own. We need to be in the fire with the other coals. We need to be part of a worshipping community that inspires and encourages us, and in which we can inspire and encourage others.


Modern helicopter parents may wonder how Jesus could have been lost for more than a moment, but for most of human history parenting has been a community affair, as it continues to be in many places around the world. Mary and Joseph would have expected that Jesus was with his cousins or neighbours, because that would so often have been the case. Clearly something went amiss on this occasion, but this story isn’t really meant to be a cautionary tale about parenting styles, and for the most part I would see this communal approach positively. The exact origin of the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” is unclear, but it seems to translate proverbs from a number of African cultures, and reflects a social reality in which children have many mentors and caregivers. A number of facets of modern Western life, including the relatively recent obsession with the nuclear family, mean that the village is rather less involved now, something which I believe is a great loss for everyone. That is why I think one of the greatest blessings of church is the way that it does bring together different generations, creating a village in which we can all raise one another.


I say raise one another, because if it is true that it takes a village to raise a child, then this story suggests that it may also take a child to raise a village. Last week we heard the wisdom of the community elders, but this week the focus is on the wisdom of a child. It would be very easy to say that this wasn’t just any child, but there is nothing in the text to say that the teachers in the temple courts knew who Jesus was, and yet they were still willing to engage with him. Perhaps they had taken seriously the words of the prophet Isaiah, when he said “a little child will lead them”. If you've been here a while, you will have heard me talk about growing up in a church where the children were fully a part of the worshipping community, where as soon as we were old enough to read a few words off a scrap of paper we would join our parents in leading prayers, and that early experience of being seen and heard in worship was so important to the development of my faith. It's why I have already started to invite Eddie and Miri to help lead us in prayer and worship, and it's why I ask so many questions when I'm leading Messy Church. I want the children to know that their voices and their ideas are important, that they have something to offer as well as to learn. And they do offer so much. I still remember talking about baptism with a youth group in Skipton, and one of the kids telling us that it was like “registering with God”. And I often come back to what Eddie told me when we were filming a short video for our online Messy Christmas three years ago, that “Jesus came so we would be kind and happy”. Children have an active and growing spirituality all of their own, and it is for us as their village to nurture it, but also to be nurtured by it.


Returning to the story one more time, Jesus’ response to his mother when she finds him in the temple may make him sound like a sarcastic kid on the verge of teenagehood, but Luke is clear that Jesus respected his parents, it’s just that his loyalty to God and to his calling came first. We see the same kind of attitude later on, when Jesus' mother and brothers come looking for him while he is teaching, and he looks at the crowd around him and says “these are my mother and brothers”. I think we often approach these stories from the perspective of the family, and we feel sorry for them because we feel that they are being rejected by Jesus, but I'm not sure that was the intention. According to the fourth gospel, Jesus used some of his final breaths to make sure his mother would be cared for, so there was clearly still a deep love there. He wasn't rejecting his family but embracing a larger community and a wider mission. Perhaps there is an invitation in there for us to do the same.

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