Teenagers Know Best

A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas-January 3, 2016

Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.

Luke 2:41-52

The parents of Jesus went to Jerusalem every year for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.


Teenagers Know Best

I have a group of good female clergy friends who serve at other Episcopal churches around RIchmond, and one of the ways that we keep in touch is with a running Facebook message thread.  Sometimes we encourage each other through busy, stressful times (“We can make it!” we’ll say during Advent and Christmas), sometimes we share more serious concerns and mention prayer requests, and sometimes we get just a tad irreverent.  The latter was the case this week when we looked at the lectionary’s gospel choice.  We began swapping cheeky alternative titles for the story of Jesus getting lost while teaching at the temple, some of which included: He Came to Save, Not to Behave; How Not to Parent; A Precocious Tween and Two Disgruntled Parents Walk into a Temple.

Joking aside, this is one of our stories that can trip us up, since it disrupts our ideas about a perfect Jesus.  It can be uncomfortable to think about Jesus disobeying his parents, and if we sit with the notion of a rebellious Jesus for a moment, we can get, as my friend Kristen would say, twitchy, trying to explain away what he did and why he did it.  Many interpretations would tell us that Jesus was not in fact ill intentioned or misbehaving at all. Jesus’ parents’ limited understanding meant that they could not keep up with their son.  We might call them neglectful, since they simply took off assuming Jesus would make it back all right.  Or we might say that Jesus had to choose between two goods: obedience to his parents and obedience to God, and Jesus chose the greater good, subordinating human social customs to God’s will.

Still, I’m sure the parents among us would have rather him not gone about teaching in the temple the way that he did–perhaps instead requested to stay behind, and then acted more graciously when reunited with Mary and Joseph.  And it must have stung when Jesus answered Mary’s question with an acknowledgment of only his heavenly Father–a not-so-subtle snub of Joseph–as though choosing deliberately to cut his ties with his earthly parents.  Sure, Jesus broke his curfew to provide religious instruction, not to party or steal, but he does not seem too different from a typical teenager here, absorbed in his own plans and dreams and unconcerned that he almost gave his mother a heart attack.  (Although, I should caveat here, that this is how the story reads to us today.  Our conceptions of the teenaged years and adolescence would not have been shared by Jesus’ first century contemporaries, who drew a much sharper line between childhood and adulthood, and 13 was usually the age when one was no longer considered a child).

There is, however, another way that we could approach Jesus’ behavior, a way that is more interesting, if unsettling.  Perhaps Jesus was not perfect, perhaps he was indeed very human with sometimes less than excellent judgement.

This story about Jesus’ childhood does several things.  For one, it roots Jesus and his family firmly within their Jewish context.  We learn that they faithfully observed Passover and made the trek to Jerusalem each year and that they were familiar with Jewish teachings and customs.

The story also provides one of the only glimpses we get of Jesus before he is an adult and helps us form a picture of our savior by connecting the dots between the Eternal Word, the innocent baby lying in a manger, the marvelous teacher and miracle worker, the justice seeker, the sacrificial lamb, and the resurrected crucified man.  We still have many unanswered questions, but we have yet one more piece of the puzzle.  

And finally, this story demonstrates real, messy, human relationship struggles.  This interaction between Jesus and his parents is actually quite relatable; it sounds like an exchange that could happen within any family.  The Jesus in this story is someone who knows us, who gets us, who has experienced the same frustrations and embarrassments and conflicts.

In the Christian faith, we are always moving back and forth between stressing the divine and human aspects of Jesus Christ.  Jesus of Nazareth was the lowly carpenter who showed us how to live righteously in the world, and Jesus the Christ overcame death on the cross, so that sin will not ultimately defeat us.  All of our credal statements attempt to get this balance right–Jesus is mysteriously, somehow, both and fully human and divine.  The creeds’ wording is careful, measured, because it is so easy to slip into emphasizing one part to the exclusion of the other.

Another way we might conceive of Jesus’ humanity and divinity is that Jesus is a figure both accessible and aspirational.  He provides a model for who we are trying to become but is not so far removed from us that we cannot relate.  There always is an unattainable dimension to our walks of faith–we are growing and evolving, and not necessarily linearly or progressively–but we venture on with hope and courage because Jesus has invited us to journey with him.

All of this talk about the fine lines between being and becoming resonates well at the dawn of 2016.  Upon us is a new year, a time for change and remaking ourselves, a time to become better, more perfect versions of who we already are.  I bet we all have read articles about how to set successful New Year’s resolutions: we should make our goals SMART–specific, measureable, attainable, realistic, and time sensitive; we should find someone to hold us accountable; we should not try to make too many changes at once.  While there are some naysayers who argue that we can set a resolution any day of the year, that there is no need to wait until January 1 (and they have a point), the energy and promise that a new calendar year brings is nonetheless contagious.  Advent may technically be the start of the Christian year, but I think January better registers with us as a beginning.  

Why not feed off the enthusiasm of others voicing their 2016 intentions?  Read the Bible for ten minutes before bed each night, or pray and journal for a few moments in the morning.  Volunteer with one of the nonprofits in our neighborhood or one of St. Mary’s partners in outreach.  Establish a tradition of praying as a family each night around the dinner table.  Talk to God about anything and everything during our daily commute.  Give grace to the body which God so wonderfully crafted and gave us, forgiving ourselves when we miss a workout and filling it with good, well grown and well made food.

And…expect there to be bumps along the way.  We will forge ahead imperfectly, perhaps skipping a few days of praying or growing exasperated rather than thankful during grace at dinner after a long day, but all will not be lost.  What I so love about the 12-year-old Jesus is that he manages to hold both together–the human and divine, the accessible and aspirational, the flawed and the excellent.  In one moment, he can share with and bestow upon others amazing insight about God and God’s works, and in another, he can completely lack consideration for his parents.  He shows us that living out our faith tends not to be all or nothing.  Our actions and practices are never all good or all bad, all right or all wrong, and we know that they are not in vain, because it is the striving, the believing that we can, even if imperfectly, that is the point.    

Perhaps you have heard the words before “Jesus descended so that we might ascend.”  Put differently, Jesus came to earth to show us the way, how we might be forever with God.  As the letter to the Ephesians tells us, God sees us through the lens of Jesus; we get extra credit. God the Father “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.”  Jesus’ full sharing in our human experience deepens and intensifies God’s love and understanding for us. Our contemporary ideas about adolescence and young adulthood are actually quite lovely to bring into play here.  We know that teenagers’ brains are still forming, that their judgement vacillates between spot on and missing the mark.  We, as spiritual teenagers, if you will, are united to Jesus, in all our missteps and all our glories, and God is good with it.  God embraces us, eagerly, happily.

Maybe my favorite alternate title of all that we tossed around in that Facebook thread was this: Teenagers Know Best.