December 30, 2012

Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?

Passage: 1 Samuel 2:18-26, Psalm 148, Colossians 3:12-17, Luke 2:41-52

49He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’*


I was at the home of one of our children for dinner recently; another young family was there with their two small children.  One child had just past his first birthday; not walking yet but with well developed crawling skills.  At one point in the evening I saw this boy’s father suddenly jump to his feet—the one year old had crawled off to explore other rooms in the house.  He was fine.  You know how this happens; adults are occupied in conversation and each parent thinks the other parent is keeping an eye on the child.

Anyone with this sort of experience with children can picture Mary and Joseph at the end of this first day of travel as they journeyed home from Jerusalem with a large company of family and friends; you can picture them saying the same thing to each other: “But I thought he was with you!”  Somehow they had both missed the fact that Jesus was not in that company of people as they left for home.  You can also identify with their panic of heart; “we have been searching for you with great anxiety”, is how Mary described it.

To be sure, knowing the whereabouts of a one-year-old and a twelve-year-old require different levels of attention though the passion for our child’s wellbeing remains a constant. But Jesus is twelve years old.

1. I know that a 12 year old sounds young to us.  In first century Israel a child became an adult at 12 years of age.  Some of us think this sounds cruel; rather harsh treatment for someone so young.  The twelve year-old was an adult in the sense that they were now considered a human agent who was subject to the law of God.  Bar Mitzvah means “son of the law” and Bat Mitzvah means “daughter of the law”.  In becoming an adult they become accountable for their actions.

As a student of history I make this observation; the notion that the teen years are to be regarded as a kind of extended childhood is a recent phenomenon in history.  With the advent of universities now regarded as basic education for life childhood gets pushed even further.  When exactly do we expect our children to take on adult responsibilities?  Further, are we parents (and grandparents) willing to release them to those responsibilities?

Now we understand Mary and Joseph being upset by their twelve-year old son deciding to remain in Jerusalem without consulting with them. I invite you to consider Jesus’ response to his parents being angry and irked.  Mary and Joseph are typical of parents worldwide—“why have you treated us like this?”  (It is all about us as parents after all). Jesus responds: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  You could also translate the last part of Jesus response this way: “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s interest?” Jesus thinks it should have been obvious that he would be at the Temple—why all the searching.  Jesus also wonders why they are angry with him.  His question is, in essence, “isn’t this what I am supposed to be doing?” *

The seeds which his parents have been sowing for twelve years have borne fruit. By all accounts Joseph and Mary are devout Jews who love God—every year, Luke tells us, Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover.  They have taught their son the law of God and a deep regard for the Holy One of Israel—the one Jesus refers to as “my Father”.  I have to imagine that somewhere in their conversations with Jesus they have told him the stories of his birth; particularly as his twelfth year is now upon them and he is to take on adult responsibility. So here is Jesus acting out his adulthood—living out the vocation they have told him God has prepared him to do.  And his parents are hurt. The event in the temple that worries and irks the parents coincides with the child's leaving childhood behind and stepping ahead in his adult vocation.

This is typically a difficult moment for parents.  How do we regard our 12 year old children?  Do we view them through the prism of that one-year old crawling around the room wanting to keep them there or with the prism of that adult we see them becoming who is independent of us?  We need to help them step into their adult vocation.  I recall my children getting to an age when they questioned the need to go to church which was usually accompanied by an imaginative explanation of why not; I would say to them “you go pray and if Jesus accepts that story you have just shared me then I am good with what Jesus decides.”  Now I know that this sounds like a cruel and manipulative Dad; I make no pretence about possessing superior parenting skills.

I did find the gospel helpful in being a parent.  The gospel shows me that my children belong to God and while I am entrusted with their care and nurturing as some point, as they matured, I needed to release them to Jesus and his purposes for their lives.

God said to the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5) When God said he knew Jeremiah he does not mean he knew Jeremiah in the sense of observer-knowledge, always observing the man, always accumulating more and more information about Jeremiah.  God has known Jeremiah as a participant in Jeremiah's life, shaping the outcome of the prophet's life.  God has known Jeremiah insofar as God himself has been involved in the unfolding of Jeremiah's life -- since when? since Jeremiah became a prophet? since he became an adult? since he was born?  No.  God has been intimately involved, passionately involved, persistently involved since the day Jeremiah was conceived.

God’s interest isn’t limited to just a few; Jeremiah, or Samuel (we read of him at the temple),  or Jesus.  The point I found great solace in as a parent was that God has been a participant in the lives of our children from their conception and will continue to be thus, for he has something for each to do.

As children grow up parents frequently scratch their heads and wonder what on earth is becoming of their child. The child behaves in ways which parents find odd, even un-understandable.  Worse, however, is behaviour that parents find heartbreaking whenever a youngster derails himself. The parents are disappointed, anxious, angry and powerless all at once. Now they have as little idea where their offspring is going to end up as they have of what precipitated the derailment. It's easy now to give up on the one whose birth brought such joy and promise.

We must understand that God has not ceased to be a participant in their lives. We must never give up on our children. We must never cease praying for them. We must never think that because their future is unclear to them and to us they therefore have no future at all. We must never assume that because we seem unable to reach them in some respects no one else ever will and God himself cannot. Remember: Jeremiah wasn’t appointed to be a prophet the day he became a prophet. He was appointed to be a prophet the day he was conceived. Between these two momentous days countless developments unfolded whose significance no one could guess; not Jeremiah himself, and certainly not his parents. And yet the single weightiest factor in Jeremiah’s life was the unidentified participation of God himself as the holy one of Israel shaped the youngster in a way no one could see for an end no one could foresee.

Consider you own journey of faith.  Here you are today sitting in church all matured and responsible.  As you think back on your childhood and maturing in life; did it always predict this outcome?  Did your parents have some angst about your choices?

Remember this; that the faith our children are one day to profess and the obedience they are one day to render didn’t begin with them but began with the quiet work of the great infiltrator himself.

2.  I read recently of an Australian psychologist, Dr. John Irvine who expressed criticism of Smartphone apps that allow parents to send their misbehaving children phone calls from Santa.   One of these apps is called Fake Call From Santa; the website describes it as “A free app to help you, help your kids behave all year long.”  The way the app works is when activated a picture appears on your Smartphone indicating that Santa is calling (see picture).  I share Dr. Irvine’s concern.  It is my experience that children are not fooled by such things for long.

“Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  What was Jesus doing at the temple?  Mary and Joseph “found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” (Luke 2:46) One of the methods teachers of the law in this era employed with their pupils was to probe theology by the asking of questions.  When Mary and Joseph find Jesus they see a pupil who astonishes his teachers by the understanding of the law apparent in his questions and answers to their counter-questions.

I think it true that every young person as they mature enters this stage in their spiritual development: questioning. My three year old granddaughter has a children’s Bible and if you asked her which story she would like you to read to her she wants the story of Jesus dying on the cross read.  The story unsettles her yet she keeps coming to it—her parents are trying to help her be interested in other stories.  She told me the other day that Jesus died for us so we could go to heaven when we die.  She seems settled about that; she feels secure in her home and so this idea of the meaning of Jesus dying suffices—even if she has no idea what the word atonement means.

At some point in her life though, everything has to be questioned, looked at from fifty different angles, disputed, probed, tested, contradicted, queried.  As we grow older we go through that period where we question; will we own the things our parents and teachers have taught us as our own.  And there's nothing wrong with this.

If we will but recall our own experience, it is amazing how knowledgeable we considered ourselves to have become by virtue of turning fifteen years-of-age.  What the young person experiences is that the gospel collides with the world; just because gospel-understanding collides with the world's self-understanding.  Questions arise and we should be ready to engage such probing—dare I say even to encourage it.

We live in a world, for example, where certain strains of evolutionary thought claim that all belief in God is simply a mechanism that developed in humans to cope with and explain uncertainty.  Somehow now with our superior scientific knowledge of things, humans have evolved beyond our need for such beliefs.  But, I would push back, all reductionist arguments cut both ways.  If  belief in God is nothing more than the a desire for certainty of those who want God, then by the same argument atheism is nothing more than an expression of certainty by those who want to be rid of God.  *

Think for a moment of the influence of the thought of Karl Marx; his thinking pervades our world in many places.  The machinations of the so called occupy movement are steeped in this thinking.  Marx claimed that all philosophy and all theology were nothing more than the self-serving rationalizations of the economically privileged (think the 1 %), which rationalizations the economically privileged deployed to perpetuate their privilege. However, if you subject Marx's own philosophy to Marx's critique of all philosophy it fails its own test?  According to Marx's argument his understanding is nothing more than the self-serving rationalization of the economically disenfranchised.”  So why would you choose one groups’ self-serving rationalization over another?

It is my experience that for teenagers it is the collision between the Christian faith and the world's contradiction of it that has their attention.  Relentless questioning (including questions carefully designed to "stump" older adults); ceaseless disputes; corrosive criticism of long-cherished assumptions: all of this is part-and-parcel of spiritual development.  For it is only as such queries are taken seriously that growing people mature.

3. “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s interest?”  This is the other way these words of Jesus could be translated.  These are the first words of Jesus we have recorded.  You will notice the clarity of his mind and heart about the direction of his life.  I also point out to you that this does not preclude him from coming home to Nazareth; honouring his parents; entering the family business with his father Joseph.  But the interest of his Father in heaven is his over-arching priority.

I always find the time after Christmas to be a bit of a lull; I look forward to a new year but I don’t find myself highly charged to do goal setting at this point in the year—too much turkey, perhaps.  But do I find myself greatly helped by Jesus’ example here.  “I must be about my Saviour’s interest.”  It is simple but all encompassing—not unlike Paul’s admonition “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.”

I think this is a good sentence to write over the top of 2013 goals—“I must be about my Saviour’s interest”. Amen.