Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Family Business -- A sermon

Luke 2:41-52

    Oh, how they do grow up!  They start out as cute little babies, but before you know it, they’re twelve, and that original cuteness has begun to wear off.  12-year-old kids are liable to speak their minds – even to their parents.  So, would it surprise you to learn that Jesus is no different? 

   When last we gathered on Thursday Evening, we found Jesus lying in a manger, surrounded by proud parents and some rather dirty shepherds.  We filled the night with carols, such as O Come all Ye Faithful, the First Noel, and Silent Night.  We sang songs of joy and thanksgiving to the one lying in that manger, all wrapped up in swaddling clothes.  Yes, along with the angels and the shepherds, we sang: 
    “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly, for his bed a cattle stall;
    Oxen lowing, little knowing, Christ the babe is Lord of all.” 

These much beloved songs project an image of a gentle glowing baby, and we all seem to like babies.  Little children like them, as do the oldest among us.  But, like I said, babies do grow up, taking on their own identity, and breaking free of their parent’s grasp.  In most societies this begins to happen around age twelve, and while we have a long period of preparation called adolescence, ancient societies lacked this intermediate period of life.  You went from childhood to adulthood almost over night.
1.  The Maturation of the Messiah

    We don’t know very much about Jesus’ process of maturation.  The gospels are rather silent about his growing up years, with Matthew being the only other canonical gospel that even offers a birth narrative, and he is silent on the years between birth and baptism.  This doesn’t mean that we lack stories about this period of Jesus’ life.  It’s just that these other stories seem rather odd.  They’re more akin to watching Superboy grow up in Smallville, learning to manage his super powers.  These apocryphal gospels depict Jesus as a miracle worker, who uses his super powers mostly to benefit himself.  So, if you cross him, be careful, because this Jesus hasn’t yet learned to rein in his powers, and you just might end up dead!

    What we have before us in this morning’s text is the lone canonical picture of Jesus’ growing up years, and it’s just one snapshot.  The picture comes from a trip south to the annual Passover celebration.  Jesus is twelve and the family had traveled from Nazareth to Jerusalem in a caravan.  On the way home, about a day into the trip,  the parents discovered that Jesus was missing.  That sounds sort of odd to us – we would probably report parents like these to Child Protective Services, but this is a different time and place. 

    Upon returning to Jerusalem, the frantic parents finally stumble upon the young Jesus after a three-day search.  He’s just sitting there in the Temple courts, talking theology with the teachers of the day.  Everyone is amazed at his level of understanding.  This is a precocious child!  He might not be turning his clay pigeons into real ones, but he confounds the wise with his own wisdom.  It might be worth noting that Jesus ends his teaching ministry in the same Temple precincts – but his message isn’t as well received. 

    When the parents confront Jesus, he’s rather surprised that they were worried.  As he saw it, they should have expected him to be about his father’s business!   If you read between the lines, it would appear that his tone isn’t all that pleasant.  It almost seems as if he is talking back to his parents.  Maybe he thinks they’ve embarrassed him in front of his new friends –  You know how it is to be age 12.

     But, however the conversation may have gone, in the end, he returns home with his parents, and Luke says that he grew in wisdom and stature, and in both divine and human favor.  And the next time we see Jesus, he’s an adult, who has come to John to be baptized.  But, as Luke tells the story, Jesus doesn’t need to be forgiven his sins – he just needs to be commissioned to take up his life work.      

2.  The Family Business

    In the ancient world you didn’t normally choose a career for yourself.  If you were a male, you followed in your father’s footsteps.  Joseph is said to have been a carpenter or some kind of builder or even a laborer, and so it would have been expected that Jesus would take up the same trade.

    I’m glad things have changed -- Although my father enjoyed history and even preached a little when I was really young, selling specialty advertising isn’t my cup of tea!  And I don’t think Brett is planning to follow in my footsteps either – at least not the preaching part. 

    When Jesus told his parents that he was in the Temple doing his father’s business, he wasn’t talking about doing carpentry or stone work, he meant, talking theology.  In a sense he was redefining his family boundaries.  While he would return home with his parents – Luke says that he was obedient to them – in the course of time he discovers both a different vocation and a different sense of family.  For him, family would be defined by faith and not lineage.  Instead of Joseph being his father, God would be his father, and therefore, his calling would be take up the Father’s business.   

So, what does this have to do with us?  Does it not redefine our own sense of family values?  We’ve just finished celebrating a holiday that tends to be defined by family connections, and yet even as Jesus discovered a new sense of family, the same is true of us.  And like him, we have been called to join in this family business.
3.  Growing in Wisdom and Stature       

    As we contemplate what it means to take up the family business, I hear another word in the text calling out to us.  It’s a call to consider what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. 

    In the verse that precedes this morning’s text, in a passage that bridges the infancy narrative and this story of Jesus’ youth, we hear that the child, living in Nazareth, grew strong and was “filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Lk 2:40).   Then, in the closing verse of today’s text, we hear that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (Lk 2:52).  These two verses provide a set of parentheses for the story about the Temple encounter.  They both speak of Jesus growing in wisdom and in favor.   

     The way of discipleship involves growing in wisdom and in the favor of God.   As we prepare to enter a new year, one that is full of new possibilities and opportunities, we hear in this text an invitation to prepare ourselves for taking up the family business – that is the business of the kingdom of God. 

    In thinking about what this means, I turned to a new book by Philip Clayton, in which the author writes that “in recent years Christian churches have been losing the battle of significance.” 1 Part of the reason for this is that we simply don’t know our story very well, which means we have trouble living our lives from this story.  Many Christians find it difficult to say why their faith makes a difference in their lives.  This makes the call to bear witness to the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ difficult, because we’re not certain of our place in God’s vision of the world. 

    Clayton suggests that we need a robust theology, one that is reasonable, inclusive, engaging, and rooted in the biblical story.  In order to gain this confidence, we must grow in the wisdom that comes from our encounters with Scripture, tradition, and in the faith experiences that emerge from our encounters with God and with each other.  In this, we discover a vision of the kingdom of God, one that invites us to work with God “for the salvation of this planet and all its inhabitants” (Clayton, p. 153).   Jesus had that sense of vision, and it was one that he developed as he grew in wisdom and in stature.  

    The church year, which begins in Advent and continues to and beyond Christmas, serves to remind us of the full-orbed nature of the Christian story.  It begins with a promise that bears fruit in the birth of Jesus, and continues on as we encounter God in our daily lives, wrestle with the questions of faith, engage in matters of life and death, and then hear the call to join with the community of faith in the work of God.  This may be circular, but as we tell and retell the story, it becomes part of us, and we discover in this story our connection to the family of God.  And as we find our place in God’s family, we also discover our calling to take up the family business.

1. Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology for Church and Society, (Fortress Press, 2010), p. 152.

Preached By:
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
1st Sunday after Christmas
December 27, 2009

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