Luke 2.41-52

I Infancy 21.5-21

The Wonder Years

Third Sunday after Epiphany

            Between the time he was born and the time he began his public ministry nearly thirty years later, there is only one story in the Bible about Jesus:  it’s the one Claudia just read for us about the twelve year old boy in the temple.  That is a long stretch of unaccounted-for time, and, since nature abhors a vacuum, some folks naturally wondered what might have happened in the intervening years, and set out to write their own stories about him.  The passage I read from one of the so-called “infancy gospels” is but one attempt to fill that vacuum.  I want to look at some others, but first let’s look at the story itself, the boy Jesus at the age of twelve going to the temple and educating the elders.

            We know this is an amazing story, because Luke tells us it is.  Not once, not twice, but four times in the nativity stories alone, Luke uses the word, amazed.  We read them all earlier in our Call to Worship, and indeed, Luke uses that word a grand total of fifteen times in his gospel, and another eleven times in the book of the Acts, which Luke also wrote.  The story of Jesus, Luke wants us to know, is an amazing story.  He uses the word to tie together the greatest moments in Jesus’ ministry, so I decided to go a little deeper with that it. Amazing; thaumazo in Greek.  It means wonder, amazement, astonishment and awe, and Luke uses it to express reaction to miraculous events and divine teaching.  The shepherds amazed people with their story of the star and the angel choir.  The elders in the temple were amazed at Jesus’ wisdom and understanding.  When the disciples caught so many fish their nets were about to break, they were amazed at the catch of fish to which Jesus led them.  Another time at sea, Jesus calmed a raging storm, and the disciples were amazed, asking, “Who is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”  And finally, at the end of Luke’s story, when Peter entered Jesus’ tomb and saw the burial cloths lying there empty, “he went home, amazed at what had happened.”  Throughout his gospel, Luke uses the idea of amazement and astonishment and wonder as one of the major threads that keep his story connected.  Luke wants us to pay attention to the great and wonderful things in the life of this boy Jesus.

            But I don’t know.  Maybe Luke lays it on a bit thick.  In a lot of ways the story seems perfectly ordinary to me.  Jesus and his parents went to the big city, and it was crowded because it was Passover, and lots of people were there.  Think 34th St on Thanksgiving, or Times Square on New Year’s Eve.  At one point Jesus got separated from his parents, who weren’t too alarmed because he was probably somewhere with the same group of pilgrims they were traveling with.  Nothing too amazing there, it can happen with crowds.  But after a couple days they began to get worried because they still hadn’t seen him for a while – what parent wouldn’t?  Meanwhile, Jesus, still separated from his parents, recognized a safe place when he saw one:  he waked into a church – or in his case, a temple.  It’s a safe place, right?  Do your kids feel safe here?  Do they know this is a place where people care for them?  I hope so – I’ve seen our kids mix it up with our adults at coffee hour, they know they can be themselves.  And Jesus was being himself as he asked his teachers questions.  And when he wasn’t asking questions, he had a few answers of his own.  And his teachers and his parents were amazed and astonished at the wisdom of his youth.

            For the last two consecutive Sundays, the literal wisdom of youth has spoken to us.  For the month of January our young people have been asking our help in collecting toys and games for the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, and our congregation, inspired by their initiative, responded with enthusiasm and generosity.  And who was it that made that inspirational ask?  Nine year old Sophia Abramson, whose very name, Sophia, means wisdom.  The wisdom of youth.  And we listened to her, and were impressed that she would get up to speak in church and be so poised and clear.  Like the elders in Jesus temple, when our young people speak, we listen – and we respond.  Luke would call this amazing. 

            But maybe the amazing part is not in what Jesus said, but in the fact that the elders came to understand they could actually learn something from him.  Perhaps, at first, they couldn’t understand his understanding.  I remember a conversation I had with some church Deacons many years ago when we were considering policy to welcome children at the communion table.  You’ll remember, of course, that there was a time when many churches did not allow kids to take communion.  One of the elder Deacons of the church wondered whether children were old enough to comprehend something so deep and profound as what happens at the communion table.  Well, trying to be as pastoral as I could, I responded, “Tell me - what is it that happens at the communion table that is so deep and profound, and how would you explain it?”  When the Deacon couldn’t answer the question, we knew we had the answer to ours.  She just couldn’t understand the understanding of our young people.

            The same thing was at work when my former congregation went through the Open and Affirming process. I know I’ve told you this story before, but it was an important learning for that congregation.  While all the adults in the room were worried about what might happen to the congregation if we actually welcomed our gay and lesbian neighbors – not even thinking there may be gay and lesbian folks already in the congregation, waiting to hear what others had to say – our kids looked at their elders as thought they had lost their minds and asked the obvious question, “What’s the big deal?”  What is the big deal?   We are a church – why wouldn’t we welcome everybody?  And in that moment I prayed a big fat prayer of thanksgiving for those young people in our midst, because their wisdom and understanding gave a name to the elephant in the room; when the prophet Isaiah wrote, “a little child shall lead them,” I knew Isaiah was writing about kids like ours.

            Is it really so amazing that the next generation carries more wisdom than they are given credit for?  There was an article in Thursday’s New York Times about the post-millennial social cohort known as Generation Z, born roughly between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s.  The Zs who were interviewed for the article reveal a generation that is increasingly more amenable to social justice, views climate change as undeniable, believes that immigrants will make our country richer, understands that ethnic diversity is good for American society and is more likely to approve of same-gender marriage and welcome transgender people.  Now some of of this won’t sound all that surprising to those who know the young people of Generation Z, but at the risk of appearing partisan from the pulpit, there is one more characteristic to the Gen Z’ers profiled in the Times article I haven’t mentioned yet:  they are all Republican.  Perhaps the days of dysfunctional political gridlock have an expiration date.

            So, as I said earlier, there have been those who read the one single solitary story about Jesus’ youth and think there should be more.  This morning’s story from the infancy gospel is only part of the attempt to beef up young Jesus’ biography.  There are actually two so-called “infancy gospels” that we know of; they are part of a larger group of literature known as the “pseudepigrapha,” or “false writings,” that became a popular literary genre rather early, before the end of the second century.   In today’s example, it wasn’t enough that Jesus’s wisdom impressed the temple’s teachers and elders – some thought the story should go even further, hence the imaginary expansion that went into Jesus’ wondrous understanding of astronomy and philosophy and human physiology and psychology.  And because nature abhors a vacuum, and we only have one story of Jesus’ life between the nativity and his ministry, the same infancy gospels imagine other stories about his childhood, each more amazing and wondrous and unbelievable than the next.  For example, in one of them, Mary is hanging Jesus’ swaddling sloths to dry, and the son of the chief priest wanders by, puts one over his head and is cured of evil spirits – to be clear, by putting Jesus’ clean diaper on his head.  Another story has Jesus fashioning models of small birds out of clay, and then turning them into live birds that get up and fly away.  And in one particularly dark tale, Jesus as a youth injures his friends in order to heal them and thus display his supernatural powers.  Now let me repeat:  none of these stories is true.  But it tells us something about the yearning of the early Christians to know more about Jesus’ youth so they began inventing wild stories about his magical and miraculous powers.

            But in reality, it is enough to have this one story of Jesus in the temple; it really tells us what we need to know about him as he grew.  He didn’t need to perform any stupendous miracles, it was enough that he was a young man like any other adolescent:  curious, somewhat impetuous, respectful, and possessed of a wisdom that will occasionally astound and impress those older than he.  In other words, he was not all that different form our own kids.  This, Luke seems to be saying, is wondrous and amazing enough.

            Amen.

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