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Sermon: Claim Your Name

December 27, 2009

Luke 2:41-52

Every parent has big, beautiful dreams for their child.  Mary Anne looked down at her infant son and imagined how his fingers would grow long and nimble, and he would become a great concert pianist.  Carl watched his three-year-old daughter play and created a picture in his mind’s eye, of his little girl—all grown up—wearing a white coat and holding a stethoscope to listen to a patient’s lungs.  Jimmy, whose son was the light of his life, imagined that his adult son would become the light in any room, the center of attention, a generous friend to everyone.  A parent’s dreams for a child are the most pristine and hopeful dreams we can ever have.

And then comes puberty.  Every last dream lies shattered upon the floor like a broken glass.  We hope and pray that 12-year-old wild child Susie can stay out of jail until she finishes high school.  Our best dream for little Timmy is that he can find a nice bridge to sleep under after he flunks out of 7th grade and thus ruins his life.  Reality and our children’s growing independence have a way of mocking our dreams before stomping them into the dust.

Mary must have had her own dreams.  The Gospel according to Luke tells us that angels and shepherds told Mary strange things about her child.  She pondered them in her heart and wondered what it all meant.  Mary must have imagined what her grown up son would be and would do, how he would fulfill the angel’s promise.  It probably felt like a burden to Mary, to raise a child who would become Messiah, if that’s what he would ever become.  But even in those first days, when there was no room in the world for her or her son, she must have joyfully anticipated the future.

And then came puberty.

It is difficult for us to know how much Jesus knew about his true identity and when he learned about it.  We can certainly assume that the infant Jesus knew no more and no less than any other newborn.  Our traditional theology asserts that Jesus was born a human being—and though was somehow fully divine, he was also fully human.  It is absurd to think that Jesus in the manger understood that he was God’s Son and Messiah in a unique way.  He must have come to that knowledge in the same way any of us comes to know who we really are in this world—gradually, sometimes painfully, and in fits and starts.

Our scripture reading for today is the only story we have of Jesus’ childhood.  It describes a twelve-year-old Jesus who was beginning to discover his true identity and purpose.  It is hard for us to know how much Jesus knew from such a brief story, but it does give us a glimpse into his early years.

People have always wanted to know more, and as the early Church developed, people created new stories.  There are four Gospels in our Bible: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Some of you might be surprised to know that there are many so-called Gospels that are outside the Bible and never made it into the canon.  When we talk about the Christian canon, we mean that list of books which are considered authoritative scripture.  Those books have been collected in your Bible, although not every Christian group includes the exact same list of authorized books (http://gbgm-umc.org/umw/bible/canon.stm).

There are several reasons why some books did not make it into the canon.  Some books were written too late.  Some books were considered heretical, that is, they contained material that conflicted with orthodox theology.  Some books weren’t popular enough, and some books were simply too outrageous.  One of these was called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.  This book contained lots of stories about Jesus as a child.  In one of those stories, Jesus made some sparrows out of mud.  Then, he clasped his hands, as if in prayer, and the mud sparrows came to life and flew away.  In another of the stories, a boy accidentally bumped into Jesus’ shoulder.  Jesus became upset and struck him dead.  The church, long ago, decided that the Infancy Gospel of Thomas was too outrageous and did not reflect the true nature of Jesus (http://gbgm-umc.org/umw/bible/noncanon.html).

And that leaves us with today’s scripture reading as the only story from Jesus’ later childhood in our Bible.  Other than that story, we have Jesus as an infant and then suddenly, he’s a grown man.  In fact, Mark and John never write about Jesus as an infant at all.  He appears on the scene only as an adult, preceded by John the Baptist.

In today’s lesson, the twelve-year-old Jesus is well on the way to disabusing his parents of all their perfect dreams.  His family had a habit of attending the Passover festival each year at the Temple in Jerusalem.  They were faithful Jewish parents, and they helped Jesus to find his true self as a child of God.  But one year, as the parents were traveling back home to Nazareth—they were about a day’s journey out—and suddenly Mary said, “Joseph, where’s Jesus?”

Joseph said, “I don’t know.  I thought you were watching him.”

“No, I distinctly told you to keep an eye on him before we left.  And then, when I reminded you as we were leaving the city gates you said, ‘Yes, dear, you don’t have to remind me.  I’ll watch him.’  Apparently, I did have to remind you, because he’s gone.”

So Mary and Joseph went among the holiday travelers asking about Jesus.  Eventually, they made it all the way back to Jerusalem looking for him.  After a three-day search, Mary asked a man who said, “Oh yeah, I saw a kid like that.  He was in the Temple listening to the teachers.”

Joseph went in and sure enough, there was Jesus.  His father pulled him up by the ear and hustled him outside.

“Jesus,” his mother said, “why did you do this to us?  We were out of our minds with worry (although none of this would have happened if your father had been keeping an eye on you liked I asked)!”

Jesus said, “Why were you searching?  Didn’t you know I would be in my Father’s house?”

And although they didn’t understand what he meant, Mary treasured these things in her heart.  She thought about them in quiet moments at the end of the day, or while she watched her son sleep.  She wondered just what kind of a man he would become.

All parents do a lot of such wondering, even if they haven’t been visited by angels and wandering shepherds.  But there ultimately comes a time when the child begins to grow in his own direction in a way that conflicts with all the parental hopes and dreams.  The father who wanted his son to be a lawyer is suddenly aghast when the child becomes interested in art.  The mother who wants her daughter to become a doctor is disturbed that her child shows an interest in becoming a pastor.  In almost every case, children long for independence from their parents long before the parents are ready to let go.

And that’s where we find Mary and Joseph, frantically searching for their lost son.  How in the world could he have treated them so shabbily?  Couldn’t he pick up a phone?  As Jesus grew into his own unique identity, his journey almost certainly took him away from the path his parents hoped he would follow.  After all, what parents pray that their child will become a homeless, street corner preacher in constant trouble with the authorities?  Jesus’ appearance in the Temple that Passover—and disappearance from his parents—was just one step in learning about his place in the world.  As it often does, his developing sense of purpose brought conflict with the family.

Most of us have experienced that.  There have been times I have gone my own way, apart from the expectations of my parents, and they have been disappointed.  When I changed my major in college after my second year from Biology to Religious Studies, my parents were a little concerned.  Already my own kids have made choices for their lives I had never imagined when I held them in my arms.

And so, even if we do not share his unique role as the Messiah and Savior, we do share one thing with Jesus: we grow up.  We grow up into a purpose that we create together with God.  Each one of us has a developing role in this world, and as we grow, it isn’t always easy.  It isn’t always comfortable for us or the ones we love.

Like Jesus, we grow up.  I believe that we are always growing up into our purpose in this world, and it is equally true for those of you who are past 80 years old as it is for the manger babies we welcomed this year.  You and I are not now who we can be in the future.  All of us have some growing up to do.  That can be particularly good news for anyone who isn’t quite happy with where they are in life at the moment.  You, too, can be in your Father’s house, listening, asking questions, searching for the secret of your purpose in God’s kingdom.

I do not believe in the saying that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.  It may be true that this old dog’s body can’t chase rabbits anymore, but that doesn’t mean that our time for growth, for learning, for becoming the people God created us to be is over.  There is always time to grow up.

I don’t know what your purpose is.  I don’t completely know what mine is yet.  But I am eager to find out.  I know it will be uncomfortable sometimes—change is always hard.  I know my family won’t always understand.  But I do know that one of the greatest gifts God gives us is the gift of growth.  By the grace of God, I will not be tomorrow the same man I am today.

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