Made it through preaching a sermon today (twice). Not sure how, but here it is. Most of it was actually written for preaching class back in November, but some revision has been done since then.
Charles S. Freeman
Salisbury Presbyterian Church, Midlothian, VA
December 30, 2012
Going Into His Father’s Business
It is remarkable, if you stop to think about it, how little we truly know about the life of Jesus; I mean, the actual thirty-three or so years that Jesus Christ spent walking the earth as a physical human being.. This time of year we hear a lot about Jesus’s birth, of course, but remarkably little is told; only two of the canonical gospels have any sort of birth story for Jesus, and Luke’s story spends almost as much time on the birth of his cousin John as on Jesus himself. On the other hand, Matthew tells different stories, one about sages from afar coming to visit the child (we observe that next Sunday) and a tragic story in which the holy family flees to Egypt to escape a massacre of children. Mark and John, of course, are silent on any childhood of Jesus. Once Jesus is born, aside from the text for today, we fast-forward almost thirty years to the public, adult ministry of Jesus. Of this we are given, between the four gospels, about a three-year period of ministry before Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection.
This isn’t how most major religious figures have their stories told. A casual scan of Wikipedia entries for figures such as Muhammad or Buddha will reveal biographies that, if not complete, at least don’t contain gaps of decades in the life of the subject. Even in the early Christian world stories of ancient heroes or demigods were far more complete, and likely to contain stories of the hero’s childhood that suggest that the essential traits of that hero’s character, if not their miraculous abilities, were well-established at an early age.
It seems that in the early days of Christianity, around the second century or after, the absence of such stories about Jesus helped spur the writing of a number of “gospels,” some of them specifically infancy narratives or childhood stories, aiming to fill in the yawning gaps in the life of Jesus. These “gospels” of course were not ultimately accepted into the biblical canon as we know it, and in more than a few cases we’re probably glad of this fact. One such collection, known today as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, purports to cover an eight-year span of Jesus’s life, beginning from age five. Most of the stories are miracle stories, not surprisingly. Some of them are harmless, or even cute: at age five Jesus is creating birds from clay and bringing them to life, and a little later, when helping Joseph in the carpenter shop, he magically stretches out a board that was too short for the use Joseph intended. Some of the stories, however, are rather frightening. Jesus strikes dead a boy who bumped into him, and then strikes blind those who complained about the boy’s death. In another story Jesus raises a boy from the dead, but only so the boy could testify that Jesus wasn’t the one who pushed him off the roof. Frankly, in many of these stories Jesus comes off as little more than a brat with superpowers.
Fortunately, the one account of Jesus’s young life to be found in the canonical gospels is rather less gruesome. Indeed, it is a story that is, at first glance at least, remarkable for its unremarkability. Its context is that of a very typical, devout Jewish family life for its time, with regular trips to the Temple in Jerusalem for the observances required of the faithful.
One such observance was the Feast of the Passover, which Luke tells us the family traveled to Jerusalem every year to observe. The year when Jesus was twelve years old was no different than the years before, evidently; the family gathered itself up and made its way to Jerusalem, in the company of relatives and other faithful acquaintances; they remained in Jerusalem for all of the appropriate events of the festival, and when it was all over, they along with their relatives and fellow travelers made their way home. Typical.
Only after a day’s journey towards Nazareth did the story take its unexpected turn. Maybe it’s hard for us to imagine in our extremely cautious age, where parents can keep children on leashes or attach beepers to them or use numerous other means of keeping track of them, but a day into the journey home it became clear that Jesus was not with his brothers or sisters, or playing with that boy Simon, or anywhere else in the caravan headed to Nazareth. He was nowhere to be seen.
The sense of panic Mary and Joseph must have experienced is probably not hard for you to imagine, particularly if you’ve ever been a parent. Emotions rise to a fever pitch, desperation sets in. No 911 to call, no Amber Alerts to issue; he’s just … gone. At last the only recourse is for Mary and Joseph to retrace their steps to Jerusalem and try to find the boy.
Jerusalem is a large city, even at the time in which Mary and Joseph are searching. The frustration of wondering how this boy, normally such a good boy, could go off and do something so irresponsible was no doubt mixing with the sheer terror of desperately trying to find the boy before it was … too late. He’s not at the lodging. He’s not at the market. Where could that boy be???
Finally, after three days of searching, the parents arrive at the Temple. Sure, this was where no doubt the family had spent much of their time during the Passover, but why would Jesus come back here with the festival over? And yet, in the end, that’s exactly where Jesus was.
Seated among the teachers in the Temple, far removed from the celebrating crowds that had thronged there only a few days before, was the boy Jesus. Luke tells us he was listening to the teachers and asking them questions, and that those hearing him were extremely impressed, to say the least, by his questions, by his attentiveness, by his intelligence, by his insight. You might well imagine the remarks the teachers might make to the parents: You’ve got quite a son there. Whip-smart. A real intelligent boy, yes sir. You must be teaching him well. Respectful, too. A real fine boy.
Not surprisingly, though, the parents are not really in the mood to be regaled with stories of their son’s intelligence and perceptiveness. No, the first thing on their minds, perhaps first after Oh, thank the Lord he’s safe, is “HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO US???” Luke describes the parents as “astonished,” or “astounded” – but not in a good way. The language of the NRSV is a bit bloodless, isn’t it? “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” Now let’s put that in terms we can understand: Oh, Jesus, how could you put us through this? Your poor father and I have been searching all over Jerusalem for you, and you’ve just had us worried sick? What were you thinking, son? How could you just go off on your own like this? Don’t you know it’s not safe?
At this point it’s impossible to speculate what kind of response Jesus’s parents expected from him. Maybe Mary and Joseph themselves didn’t even know what to expect, or perhaps they expected no response at all, as long as he was quiet and did what he was told and took his scolding and didn’t sneak off again.
They most certainly did not expect the reply they got, though. That much is certain. The Greek does a couple of different possibilities here: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” could equally accurately be read How did you not know that I’d be about my Father’s business? The words must have cut like the sharpest of knives, especially for Joseph, Jesus’s … you know, father. How long had it been since Mary and Joseph thought back to those events of twelve years before, the strange angel apparitions and stars and shepherds? After all this time, living such an ordinary life, had those miraculous events started to fade; the unexpected pregnancy, the journey to Bethlehem, no place to stay, angels and shepherds… And now, to be confronted with such a harsh declaration? No wonder they couldn’t understand it.
For all the seeming disconnect between parents and child, in the end Jesus was obedient, Luke tells us; he went home with Mary and Joseph, his mother and his earthly father, and if there were any similar incidents in Jesus’s teenage years Luke does not tell us about them.
Still, even though the scene doesn’t have the lurid appeal of a superboy striking people dead or blind in a fit of pique, what we do learn of Jesus in this account is disconcerting and even threatening in its own way. At the age of twelve, on the cusp of manhood in the Jewish tradition, Jesus has made his own declaration that, ultimately, he would be going into his Father’s business. Above all else, this twelve-year-old boy tells us, he is the Son of God; and this above all determines where he must be, what he must do, how he must live. This is not about being bound by a set of rules or hoops to jump through; this is about a compulsion far more powerful, the fact of being so oriented to the will of God that he can do no other thing that does not conform his life, his actions, his words to be those of a child of God. Even as we’re told that Jesus grew up well and was well-regarded by those who knew him or met him, the overriding and unbreakable marker of his life was to be in favor with God, no matter how much his parents might not understand, or his brothers or sisters, or his fellow citizens of Nazareth.
The biblical scholar R. Alan Culpepper describes two ways of understanding obedience to God, saying:
Some define their religious practices with lists of things they may not do: “thou shalt not … “. Such lists set boundaries, but they do not define goals. A commitment to God that is born of the experience of God’s love and presence is expressed in grateful participation in God’s redemptive work. There are some things we have to do just because of who we are: “I must be about my Father’s business.”
In the end, that’s what we are given to learn from the youth Jesus. No matter how much others – even one’s own family – might misunderstand or resist, if we are truly to be about our Father’s business, there are things we must do. Not because they are written down in a list of rules or held over our heads as threats or dangled before us to entice us towards some reward, but because being a child of God means we do those things – we love God’s children, we care for those poorer than we, we worship when we’d rather be sleeping in the Sunday after Christmas, we teach our children what it means to be a child of God, even at the risk of their taking it seriously. To borrow words from our confessional document, A Brief Statement of Faith, we pray without ceasing, we witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, we unmask idolatries in church and culture, we hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and we work with others for justice, freedom, and peace. And we do it because we must, because that’s what it means to be a child of God, and that’s what it means to be working in our Father’s business.
Hymns: Angels from the realms of glory (PH#22), O sing a song of Bethlehem (PH#308), It came upon the midnight clear (PH#38)