A Pass Over After Passover

Posted: February 22, 2013 by Todd in Sermons
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I preached this sermon on December 30th at Grace UMC.  Here’s the audio and the text (Luke 2:41-52).

Today’s sermon is brought to you by the number twelve.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but twelve year old boys can be strange.  They don’t seem to operate by the same socially agreed upon customs that the rest of us do.  For this reason, on youth trips, we pay special attention to twelve year old boys.  We make sure they take showers, we remind them that Axe Body Spray doesn’t work as advertised in the commercials, we check their bags for shaving cream (because they don’t shave yet), we suggest that they change their clothes every few days, and we cutoff the energy drinks.  These are just some minor precautions we put in place for our twelve year old boys…and for the rest of us…

I remember yearning for freedom at the age of twelve.  And so I couldn’t wait for the first trip I would go on without my parents.  It isn’t true freedom if you’re parents come along, as any middle schooler can tell you.  My first trip was a camping trip with an all boy group at my church called the Royal Ambassadors up to Green Mountain.  Even though our trip wasn’t far from home, it was a sweet taste of freedom that for over a decade I had been yearning for.  Twelve year old boys love freedom.  With my freedom, I brought lots of candy and a twelve pack of Sunkist soda.  You see, we had planned on playing poker with candy that night.  It turned out that I did quite well.  I spent the rest of the evening enjoying the bounty I had earned.  Now twelve year old boys have this affliction that prevents them from foreseeing the future consequences of their actions.  That night, in the wee hours of the morning, I barfed in my sleeping bag and all over a tent that wasn’t my own, waking everyone up.  The family that owns the land we camped on continued to remind me through my adolescence that “there’s still a spot on their property where plants won’t grow.”
This morning and for the next two Sundays, I’ll be leading us in a sermon series entitled, “Grow.”  We’ll look at how God doesn’t want us to be a spot on the earth where things won’t grow.  Rather, the primary purpose of our relationship with God is to grow as people.  Each week, we’ll explore a unique way in which God is calling us to grow as we walk through the texts in gospel of Luke that immediately follow the Christmas story.
This morning’s text is really an extraordinary one.  It’s the only glimpse we get of Jesus growing up.  If Luke’s gospel were a movie, this scene would have been surrounded with words interrupting the chronological flow of things indicating that time had progressed by twelve years or so.  It was the one story that had to be told about Jesus’s childhood.  Luke must have seen it as a pivitol milestone in Jesus’s life because it is isolated by more than a decade on both sides.  Only in Luke’s gospel is this story even told.
I wonder if God has figured out how to use this small, quirky developmental window in the lives of adolescent boys, at around twelve years of age, where they really don’t care about what anyone else thinks.  Too often this turns inward to one’s own strange desires and twelve year old boys dedicate their lives to video games and setting things on fire.  I don’t have to worry about offending them in my sermon, because they’re not paying attention.  But if, somehow, God can harness this window of obliviousness – God can do something powerful with a twelve year old boy.  “These twelve year old boys,” God says, “aren’t too controlled by the world – this is something I can work with.”  God can whisper the truth to a boy like Jesus, you’re my son.
Also, the age of twelve was likely the time when Jewish boys would have started to participate with their parents in the Passover festival.  It was the age when they started their study of the Torah.  The number twelve seemed to be a divinely inspired age to begin the study of the Jewish tradition – representing a year for each of the tribes of Israel.  It seemed to continue to hold meaning for Jesus when he picked his disciples.  God seems to like to work with the number twelve.
Now, Jesus’s adolescent passions weren’t video games or setting things on fire – rather he seemed to be fascinated with God, with the Torah, with the things going on in the temple.  It must have been so exciting for Jesus to finally come up with his parents to Jerusalem – the center of his religious world.  While, Jesus’s interests seemed more sanctified than the average twelve year old boy, they still occupied that anti-social window in this human development phase.  It simply did not occur to him that when the Passover festival was over and he saw everyone gathering their things and starting to head back home that he should do the same.  It didn’t occur to him to check in with his parents.  He couldn’t foresee the consequences of not joining the group to travel back home.  It didn’t occur to him that his mom and dad would be anxious when they discovered he was missing.  He was a 12 year old boy.  And so, he continued to pursue the things that interested him, perhaps with the same yearning I had to be free of pesky parental oversight to pursue my passion for candy poker.  Without socially conditioned adults around to prevent him, he wandered right into the temple and thought he’d strike up a conversation with the most revered people in the community.
We don’t know what Jesus said to the teachers.  We don’t know what questions he asked.  But we do know that whatever it was amazed them.  In his answer to his mom, I think we get a clue what about the direction Jesus might have been going in his conversation.  He tells his mom, “did you not know that I would be in my Father’s house” with a capital F.  Luke’s gospel, you see, is sort of the anti-family values gospel.  In Luke, especially, Jesus downplays biological family in favor of God’s family, saying all kinds of shocking things about biological family.  In Luke, even Jesus’s last words are about this divine family.
I think at ripe old age of twelve, Jesus walked into the temple and started an impromptu Vacation Bible School of sorts.  But it wasn’t based on the typical curriculum.  He read himself into Israel’s story and God’s family.  The assumptions and questions Jesus made – that he was part of the divine family – were amazing to the teachers.  That wasn’t the interpretation they were used to.  I suspect in the back of their minds they thought – this actually makes some sense – but it would undermine millenia of interpretive history.  This isn’t what we teach the kids every year.  If he’s right, we’re doing everything wrong.  Again, I wonder if God saw an opportunity that only a twelve year old boy could take advantage of.  Jesus would no doubt say similar things to religious leaders during his adult years.  But coming from an adult who posed a threat to them, they were never given a fair hearing by the religious leaders.  The twelve year old Jesus was like a Trojan horse who met no defense at the temple gates only because he appeared to pose no threat.
As difficult as twelve year old boys can be, sometimes, I think adults defend themselves from their own negligence by blaming their kids when awkward situations like this occur.  I wonder if this is true for Mary.  Her first words to Jesus after searching for him, might have been, “I’m so sorry we left without you, sweetie”  Mary and Joseph had searched for three days for Jesus.  Now, Jerusalem in ancient times wasn’t that big. It was about four times the size of the property of our church.  Roughly eighty-eight acres.  You’d think, if you’re searching for a lost child, that in three days you’d have been able to look everywhere multiple times.  Perhaps the temple was the one place they could not fathom Jesus would be.  Surely a twelve year old couldn’t walk right into the temple.  And more importantly, perhaps that sacred space was the one place they really hoped Jesus wouldn’t be.  That would sure be embarrassing – in front of the most important people in the nation.   Embarrassed, Mary deflects the blame towards Jesus, “Child, why have you treated us like this?  We were being good, responsible parents, searching everywhere for you.”
The religious leaders were amazed.  Jesus’s parents were astonished.  And this is all perfectly natural to a twelve year old boy, “Did you not know that I would be in my Father’s house?  Duh.”
Mary is often venerated highly in the Christian tradition.  But I don’t think she comes off so great in this particular story.  It isn’t often framed this way, but really, it is a story of child neglect.  Who would travel for an entire day without at least making sure their kid is with them.  Especially on his first trip out of town.  What could account for Mary and Joseph’s colossal negligence?  Before we judge Mary and Joseph too quickly, perhaps we can see a similar impulse to pass over the important within ourselves.
I imagine it was sort of like a potluck dinner we might have here in the ministry center.  Adult friends get to talking over dinner.  Soon the kids are done eating and they get restless.  And so they find their friends and start to play.  The adults continue to have a lovely time conversing with one another and without a kid right by their side asking them questions, they momentarily lose themselves in…. Christian fellowship.  Half an hour later, the adults notice that almost all the chairs and tables have been put up and that they are holding up the clean up process.  This jolts them out of their Christian fellowship and suddenly they realize that they haven’t seen their child in half an hour or more.  I’m not speaking from experience, of course, this is all merely hypothetical.  The adult looks around them gym and their child is no where in sight.  Suddenly, a bit of panic and guilt sets in for not having been more attentive.  A search ensues for the lost child.  And so we can understand what Mary and Joseph were going through – even the temptation to focus blame on the child.  No one wants to be the parent who lost their child.
Now the text says that Mary and Joseph went up “every year” and “as usual” to the festival of the Passover.   I suspect they went up with the same people each year.  They likely greeted friends who joined them along the way as they passed towns on their way to Jerusalem.  It was all very lovely.  This was the first year that the nursery workers in Nazareth weren’t watching Jesus.  So they were used to this being a nice time when they could talk and have some….Christian fellowship without the worry of keeping up with a child.  But twelve was a threshold age in their community.  Jesus could take care of himself to a certain degree, they must have thought.  So, Mary and Joseph might not have had their eyes on the ball when they left Jerusalem.  They were simply enjoying the leisurely walk home from their every year trip to the Passover festival, the same way parents get to talking over a meal and forget the whereabouts of their children.
Its easy to get comfortable with the familiar, with the things that you do “every year.”  The purpose of the Passover, was to remember God’s deliverance and liberation of the Israelites from slavery and exodus from Egypt.  The original Exodus was a grueling journey guided by God enabled by miracles and ending with forty years in the wilderness.  While no one would expect to relive the full depth of the exodus each year, somehow the remembrance for Mary and Joseph had become so comfortable, so leisurely that they could lose themselves to the point of forgetting their child.
This, I think is the danger of something I’d like to call “every yearism.” As much as any institution, the church is guilty of “every yearism.”  Events and programs begin as thoughtful attempts to reach our community, to become more faithful disciples, but year after year, it is easy to lose sight of the original purpose in favor of the comfort and social benefits they provide.  Yearly things and the regularly scheduled programming can occupy a special, nostalgic place in our hearts.  They become the socially acceptable things to do – even the socially expected things to do.  They are controversial to remove.  I don’t think that “annualness” is the problem, but rather comfort.  The entire way we do church can become comfortable.  Often, we speak of church as a place where we “feel at home.”  This is fine for a time – but ultimately it should become a place from which we can do God’s work.  A place to do the uncomfortable, astonishing, amazing.  A place to do things that will invite criticism from the comfortable.  Comfort is the cue that things are starting to become disconnected from God’s call. The threat to comfort is what gives rise to the criticism that comes with following God’s call.
Twelve year olds – not connected to this social pressure will often suggest to me some rather interesting events for the youth group.   I ignore most of them.  I would be too embarrassed to publicly promote them in the church.  “The youth director is off his rocker,” people would say, or say it more often, anyways.  I got bamboozled into one of these, however, this past year and found myself leading a youth group trip to the FoodWorld in Scottsboro, Alabama.  This is the sort of thing that appeals to twelve year olds.  It made sense to them, precisely because it made no sense to the rest of us.  There are perfectly good grocery stores in Huntsville.  There are other ways, I can think of, to have some good Christian fellowship.  But I’m not the target audience, so, I figured, why not?
As we begin a new year, both in the church and in our own lives, we need to open our eyes to the weird way in which our God works.  God calls Noah to build an ark during a dry season to the astonishment of his community.  God inspires Jesus to walk into the holy place of Jerusalem and strike up a conversation with revered teachers.  Perhaps it is a sign of God’s favor when people look at what you’re doing with judgmental astonishment.  “You can’t do that.”  “We’ve never done it this way before.”  Often, what they really mean is: “I’m busy with the comfortable things that we do every year.”   Jesus would later say, “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets (Luke 6:26).”  It is hard for God to operate in places of comfort.  There’s no room for Jesus in the inn.  God comes to us in places of discomfort.   The example of Jesus in this text tells us to do something that is astonishing to onlookers and do it in your Father’s house.
A word of warning here.  In the critically acclaimed theatrical production, “The Secret of Snowflake County,” the kids of Grace warned us against the folly of following rule #3.  This rule guided the county’s annual Christmas production. “Anything that has been done before can and should be avoided.”  If its new, its true, the thinking goes.   In Snowflake County – it was all about the new, the shiny, the impressive.  The glitter and flash of the annual celebration, while extensibly emphasizing the novel, had become just another “every yearism” disconnected from its original intent.  Social expectations compelled it to be more dazzling each and every year.  It took the mayor’s daughter and her silent friend doing something that went totally against the grain of what everyone else was doing every year.  And so this divinely inspired twelve year old impulse isn’t about shaking things up, just to shake things up.  Through the play we learned that the only thing that could cut through the annual glitter and jazz was a makeshift manger on wheels under a construction paper star tied with yarn to a stick.  It was something simple.  Something uncomfortable.  Something ancient.  Something astonishing in the Father’s house.
At Grace, twelve year olds aren’t the only ones around here doing wild and crazy things.  During the past year, people have hijacked a closet in the youth room to assemble backpacks full of food for kids who don’t have any.  People have installed a bike rack outside the church.  A big sign telling the story of our church has appeared on a heavily trafficked road.  Another sign appeared that brightly calls attention to our church at night and brands it with the cross and flame.  A flash mob comprised of all sorts of random people emerged during an already busy season and performed in the cold rain at Bridge Street.  For the first time, our choir powerfully performed the Christmas Cantata at the early service, nearly outnumbering the rest of the congregation.  Next week, we’ll celebrate with a breakfast that we’ve surpassed the halfway point for funding a home that we’re going to build for people we don’t know in one of the poorest areas of the country.  A bunch of ridiculous things – each, I’m sure with those who first reacted to them with judgmental astonishment – all being done here at Grace – in the Father’s house.  And I think everything we do probably began with a person or a group of people that had an astonishing idea that made some people uncomfortable.  Sometimes these things can evolve over the years to become comfortable “every yearisms.”  It happens in the church and it happens in our lives.  Our passage ends with what will be our theme verse during this sermon series for the next two weeks.  “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor (Luke 2:52).”  The scriptures say, Jesus grew.  You don’t have to be already perfect.  I think perhaps our understanding of Jesus’s perfection is too static.  Jesus grows.  Static perfection is a theological doctrine imposed on Jesus.  In the past few weeks, we probably all sang the words “but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”  But this sort of perfection isn’t even really a theological concept in the Jewish tradition – it is a mathematical and philosophical one that came from the Greeks.  The language of the Spirit is one of growth.  Just as Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and humans, so we too are invited on this path of growth with Jesus.  We’ll continue to explore how we might do this in the coming weeks.
But, it begins with having the courage to do uncomfortable things in our Father’s house.  You might fail.  That’s okay, it’s about growth, not static perfection.  You might be so accustomed to the way things are that you can’t even imagine something different.  Channel the spirit of a twelve year old boy and ignore the judgments you think the world is hurling at you.  This is the space in which God works.  I know New Year’s Day isn’t a holiday of the church, but is the perfect time to make an intentional decision to grow.  The first step to losing “spiritual weight” is the decision to get off the couch and on the treadmill – the decision to abandon our places of comfort and do something astonishing in the Father’s house.  Can you be part of a plan crazy enough that it just might work?  I hope so.

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