(A sermon based on Luke 2:41-52 & Colossians 3:12-17 for the 1st Sunday after Christmas Day)
The 2008 movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” told the story of how the title character was born as an old man and how as he lived he grew younger and younger until finally he just ceased to be. Reflecting on that story, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to carry the experiences of old age with you into middle age and those of old and middle age into young adulthood and those of old, middle, and young adulthood into adolescence and childhood. After all, what adult among us has not said, “If I had known then what I know now”?
That is not, though, how it works. We are born as babies and we grow into adults who become older and older adults until finally we die.
Since Jesus was a normal human baby, he grew up in the normal human way. As a baby he nursed, he burped, he spit up, he messed up his diaper, he cooed, and he cried. As a toddler he learned to walk and to talk; he stumbled and got boo-boos and he said words in cute ways that made Joseph and Mary laugh. As a child he played with the kids in the neighborhood and followed Joseph around the carpenter’s shop and had to get his homework done.
The Bible tells us none of that, of course. We can infer it, though, from the story of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple because in that story he acts a lot like any other child acts who is entering that wonderfully awful period of being suspended somewhere between childhood and adulthood. All of us adults remember those times in our life when our parents said “We’re going this way” and we said “I believe I’ll go that way”; we parents also remember when we said “We’re going that way” and our child said “I believe I’ll go this way.”
Discovering, finding, and exploring your own way is part of growing up. In the story of Jesus staying behind at the Temple we get a glimpse of him becoming aware of who he was and of who he was meant to be and of him working it out in the best way he could. Jesus was the Son of God and so he had a pre-history and a status that no one else had or has but he still, being human as well as divine, had to grow into a full awareness of who he was and of what he was to do.
The baby born in Bethlehem would grow up to be the adult who would show us God’s way and, by living in that way—the way of service, sacrifice, and love—would ultimately die on the cross for our sins. Jesus was the child of God, Mary, and Joseph, and all of his parents would help to guide him and to place him in a position to grow and to learn. But Jesus also had to make some choices for himself, choices that he made very well. God’s goal for Jesus, as it is for all of us, was for him to find and to develop what it meant to be who he was meant to be; Jesus had to develop the gifts that were his from his Father.
Jesus chose to stay behind at the Temple. But Jesus had parents who faithfully practiced their faith and had regularly put their son in a position to understand how important such practice was. Given who he was, who his parents taught him to be, and who he was growing to understand he was, I’m sure that when Joseph and Mary reflected on it later, they realized that the Temple was the first place they should have looked.
Jesus was actively engaged in becoming who his Father meant for him to be; he was actively engaged in the process of growing up into the man who would change the course of history and the course of so many lives.
What about us? Are we seeking to grow up? Are we actively putting ourselves in a position to move past being “babes in Christ” and to grow into being mature and productive believers?
Paul said to those of us who are God’s beloved and set apart children, “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). He went on to say, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (3:14). He continued, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (3:15) and “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (3:16). Now all of these magnificent realities—compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, peace, and love—are gifts from God but we choose whether or not to put ourselves in a position to practice them and to develop them.
It is as the Dalai Lama, that great Tibetan Buddhist leader, said: “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” We choose whether or not to let the gifts of God take root in our lives and cause us to grow up into mature faith.
I have often been told by someone who professes to follow Christ but whose behavior tended toward obnoxiousness and rudeness, “That’s just the way I am.” No, that’s just the way they choose to be; they don’t have to be that way. I’m not saying that it’s easy and I’m not saying that it’s automatic. I am saying that we have choices and that if we choose ahead of time, before the crisis strikes or before the hurt comes (which will happen if we are to have anything to do with people, which we must do if we are to be the church) that we are going to practice love, then we will grow in showing love and in being who we are meant to be.
My very wise Uncle Johnny told me about a man who had two dogs who tended to fight a lot. A friend asked the owner, “Which one wins?” The owner replied, “Whichever one I feed.” If you feed compassion instead of apathy, compassion will win. If you feed forgiveness instead of grudges, forgiveness will win. If you feed humility instead of pride, humility will win. If you feed love instead of hate, love will win. They are all God’s gifts to you but we need keep ourselves in a position to cultivate, practice, and develop them.
The baby Jesus had to grow up to be who he was meant to be and to do what he was meant to do.
You know how some parents mark the growth of their children on a door frame? If we marked our spiritual growth—our growth as a community as seen the way we exhibit compassion, forgiveness, and love—how high would our latest mark be?