Sermon for September 6, 2020
41 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43 When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44 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. 45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 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.” 49 He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he said to them. 51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.
Back to School Sunday
Today is back to school Sunday, and I'm reminded of the story about a young high school student who was failing in his math class. His parents, desperate to help him, decided to take him out of the public school and enrolled him instead at the local Catholic school. After just a few weeks, the boy brought home a progress report showing straight A's in math. His parents, of course, were pleased, but wanted to know: "How are your math grades suddenly so good?" The son explained, "You know, when I walked into the classroom the first day, and I saw that guy on the wall nailed to a plus sign, I knew this place meant business!"
In today's scripture passage, a young, 12-year-old Jesus goes back to school, though not exactly in the way his parents expected. As the father of three children of my own, all of whom think that this church building is their personal property, I can identify with one aspect of this story: losing them. I find myself saying the words, "Has anyone seen my children?" about as frequently as I say the words, "Let us pray" or "In the original Hebrew text..."
So there's absolutely no judgment on my part toward Mary and Joseph, who spend three entire days looking for their son, before finding him at last in the temple, studying the scriptures. By the way--Grady, Abby, and Jonah (If you're listening)--that's exactly what you should be doing when I find you.
To be fair to Jesus' parents, they were most likely traveling to and from Jerusalem with a caravan of people that would have included a lot of family friends and extended relatives. You can almost imagine the conversation: I thought he was with you! No, I left him with your brother Jesse! But I just saw him with Grandma Anne! No, that's actually his cousin Hannah--they have the same hairstyle. I *told* you he needed a haircut!
I've heard a lot of sermons on this text, and it's common for preachers to focus on the humanity of Jesus' parents. We can identify with their worry, their distress, and their chastising of a strong-willed pre-teen. This humanity is then contrasted with the divinity of young Jesus, who seems detached, wise beyond his years and beyond his elders--truly the Son of God, perfect in every way even at the age of twelve. And thus *not* like you or me, or any of our children.
But I disagree with that take on the story. I don't think there's really anything particularly extraordinary about young Jesus in this story, and in fact he reminds me of countless teenagers I have known and taught over the past two decades.
What *is* extraordinary to me, however, is how everything and everyone in this story works together in a near-perfect educational ecosystem that leads to a powerful result. Verse 52: Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.
The word translated here as "favor" is the Greek word χάριτι, where we get the English word "charity." It means love and kindness for others. I believe this is the goal that all of us have for our own children and the children in our community: That with each passing year, they might grow in wisdom, in their love of God, and in their kindness toward their fellow human beings. That should be the goal of every school, every family, every educational institution.
So as we begin another school year (and a challenging one, at that) what can we learn from this story? There are so many things to learn here, but I want to focus on five of them:
1. Education begins in the rituals and traditions of the family.
We read in Verses 41 and 42 that, "every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival." If not for this tradition, faithfully observed, the events of the story could not have taken place. Presumably, this trip took place 11 times before Jesus was ready to grasp its significance and claim his role in it.
What are your family traditions? What do your children see you doing over and over again that they will learn to emulate? If you want your children to be strong readers, do they see you reading on a regular basis? If you want them to love God, do they see you faithfully participating in the life of the church? Whatever rituals and traditions are "usual" to you will become "usual" to them, part of the fabric of their childhood and their adult lives.
Education begins in the rituals and traditions of the family.
2. The family lays a foundation, but the child is the one who builds.
Mary and Joseph and their community establish a tradition of traveling to the temple every year for passover, but it is young Jesus--and ONLY Jesus--on his own timeline and at his own initiative who seizes the moment and makes a critical decision about where he wants to be and what he wants to learn. This is very different than the 20th century approach, where the parents or the teacher are the ones in charge of when, where, and how education happens, and the child is a passive recipient of knowledge.
I'm not saying "don't send your kids to school until they're 12." Mary and Joseph create the opportunity, the environment, from the very beginning. But Jesus is the one who ultimately takes the initiative. And I think the best educational approaches are the ones that respect and give agency to the child--not as an empty vessel waiting to be filled up, but as active explorers fully in charge of their own interests and inclinations. We can encourage. We can set the stage. But when they take off running, our job (like Mary and Joseph do in this story) is to catch up as best as we can, to find them where they are and where they have chosen to be...and then (verse 48) to be "astonished."
The family lays a foundation, but the child is the one who builds.
3. Education is a conversation.
Verses 46 and 47: "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."
How many of you, as children, were familiar with the old saying, "Children are to be seen and not heard?" How many of you, as children, were taught in your schools and in your churches not to question the teacher, or the pastor, or your parents? That's not education...that's programming. As a parent (and as a teacher) I have often been supremely annoyed with 500 repetitions of the question, "but why?" And yet, as an educator, I know that this simple question is the foundation of every scientific, philosophical, and theological advancement in the history of humanity. When our children ask us this question, it means they are ready to listen, willing to learn, and eager to understand.
Notice that when Joseph and Mary finally find Jesus in the temple, they ask him a question. And then he responds by asking them TWO questions. And then in verse 50 we read, "But they did not understand." It's okay sometimes if the only answer you have to give is, "I don't know...but let's find out together."
Education is a conversation.
4. Education is a stretchy, lifelong, community enterprise.
There are a lot of people in this story. At the center is Jesus; next to him are his parents. But we also have the extended family and friends who make the journey with them and help lay the foundation. We have the teachers in the temple who listen and talk and are perhaps able to see something in Jesus that his own parents cannot. We have the temple itself--a space that, according to the book of Exodus, was designed as a sensory and symbolic experience--a visual and tangible teacher in its own right. And permeating all of this is the presence and Spirit of God, personified in the Greek language as "Sophia" or wisdom, who (according to the book of Proverbs) was present with God at the creation, and raises her voice in the public square to make her teachings known.
Communities (whether of education or otherwise) are elastic--they bend and stretch us, but they do not break. Jesus (like all teenagers exploring their world and themselves) pulls away from his parents, but they come back to him. He stretches the understanding of his teachers in the temple, and (presumably) they stretch him as well. His parents arrive and push him on his choices. He pushes back, but ultimately he comes back home with them. The family leaves intact, but the temple (and its teachers) will continue to pull Jesus back again, right to the very end of his life and ministry.
Education is a stretchy, lifelong, community enterprise.
5. Education is a valuable treasure.
Near the end of the story, we read in verse 51 that Mary "treasured all these things in her heart." I suspect that Joseph did, too. When education happens, even if we are not in complete control of the process, even when the timing or the outcome or the method is not what we envisioned, even when it is messy, painful or incomplete--it is always something to be revered, pursued, and treasured. Proverbs 4 teaches that "above all else" we should seek wisdom. "Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her and she will guard you. . . She will place on your head a fair garland, she will bestow on you a beautiful crown."
Education is a valuable treasure.
Students and teachers of the 2020-2021 school year (and we are all students, we are all teachers), may this be your goal and your constant aim: to seek wisdom. And like Jesus and the community that formed him, may you grow in stature and in wisdom, in favor with God, and with all humankind.