Spirit Child in the Temple

Spirit Child in the Temple

When someone is born, we don’t know whether or not they will become famous. So no one is writing down their every move. Of course just because we have the facts, or what we think are the facts, doesn’t mean we have a handle on the truth, or understand the “meaning” of a personality or an event.

Think about it, if you suddenly became famous or infamous, and then died a short time later, what stories from your childhood would people remember and retell? There are some incidents I rather wish people wouldn’t remember. And I have memories about my growing up that are clear and important to me, but I don’t know if anyone else remembers. Unless we write a memoir or an autobiography, when we die, we lose control of how we are remembered. Even with an autobiography or a memoir, we lose control of how other people remember us when we die.

In the First Century, when someone became famous, people would “remember” material from their past and tell those stories and retell those stories. Memory is, however, famously unreliable. Stage an event in front of an audience, and then go back several hours later and question people about what happened, and sometimes we might wonder whether those people were in the same room. Also telling and re-telling stories allows discrepancies to creep in, like when people play the game of telephone.

The people who had known Jesus and followed him were less concerned with his early life, than with their experience of his living resurrected presence in their community of faith. As that first generation died off, and the followers of Jesus were dependent upon the stories remembered and shared about Jesus there began to be a hunger to know more about Jesus’ early life.

The narrative of Mary and Joseph’s visit to Jerusalem with Jesus at the age of twelve is the only story of Jesus’ childhood to survive in the four canonical gospels. There were other tales told about Jesus growing up preserved in infancy gospels that didn’t make it into our Bible. Many of these apocryphal stories featured fantastic miracles, or portrayed Jesus as a mischievous child. For instance , in one story Jesus was making little birds out of clay.  Some other boys come along and are going to destroy his clay birds, so Jesus turns them to life and they fly away.  The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, probably written in the second century includes stories that make Jesus look like a very bad little boy:

2 1 And the son of Annas the scribe had come with Joseph. And taking a willow twig, he destroyed the pools and drained out the water which Jesus had gathered together. And he dried up their gatherings.
2 And Jesus, seeing what had happened, said to him, “Your fruit (shall be) without root and your shoot shall be dried up like a branch scorched by a strong wind.”
3 And instantly that child withered.

3 1 While he was going from there with his father Joseph, a child running tore into his shoulder. And Jesus said to him, “You shall no longer go our your way.” And instantly the boy died. (Jesus the miraculous serial killer.)

We need to keep in mind that other great religious figures have had miraculous events attributed to them in childhood. For instance, according to legend, the Buddha was miraculously conceived as his mother had a dream about a white elephant. And when the Buddha was born again according to legend he took seven steps and said, “I am the world honored one,” as lotus blossoms bloomed in each of his foot prints.

By comparison, Luke’s story is quite believable. There is nothing in the narrative that on the face of it is impossible. Many families of the time journeyed to Jerusalem for the great feasts of the Temple. There were three “Pilgrimage Feasts” in Judaism: Passover (in the Spring time), Pentecost (in the summer), and the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles (in the Fall). Passover was one of the “pilgrimage feasts,” and perhaps the most important. Certainly Passover was the most politically volatile of all the feasts during the Roman Occupation, because it celebrated the Exodus from Egypt and liberation from slavery. The timing of the visit might coincide with the tradition of Bar mitzvah, but in the First Century this ritual did not exist. But clearly the age of 12 or 13 is important in any culture as children move from childhood into young adulthood.

Sometimes people question how parents could leave their child behind on a large journey like that. Several possible explanations present themselves. First, because of the dangers on the road, bandits, hostile Samaritans, families traveled as large extended clans, aunts, uncles, cousins, a large group, where a twelve year old could immerse himself in the crowd and then stay behind unnoticed. Another possibility is that in those kinds of caravans, the men would march at the front of the pack to clear the way of danger, while the women and children would walk near the end of the procession. Since Jesus would have been on the cusp of manhood, his father might have assumed he was back with the women and children, while his mother assumed he was up with the men.

We can give Luke credit that when he included a story about the childhood of Jesus, he chose an account that emphasized the wisdom of Jesus, rather than fantastic juvenile magic tricks. The way of Jesus is the way of wisdom, and we are called to follow him.

From now until Ash Wednesday on February 22nd our scriptures will focus upon Jesus, his early ministry and the calling of his disciples. Jesus was a special human being. He possessed extraordinary spiritual gifts. He had the gift of healing touch. He could call forth from others spiritual powers they did not know they possessed. He was remarkably in touch with his whole personality including his shadow, and yes Jesus had a shadow side like the rest of us. He was in touch with the spiritual dimensions of life in a way that most of us only experience on rare occasions. He was in Marcus Borg’s words a spirit person.

Perhaps most important as Luke emphasized in our scripture this morning Jesus had uncommon insight and wisdom. Now there is worldly wisdom like: haste makes waste, a stitch in time saves nine, ignorance is bliss, don’t cry over spilled milk, you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink, those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, a little learning is a dangerous thing.

Proverbial knowledge is intuitive common sense wisdom, but the insights of Jesus are counter-intuitive. “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would take your coat, let him have your cloak as well.”

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those you persecute you.”

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”

Jesus points us beyond the social mores and common sense of this world to the divine wisdom of the Commonwealth of God. And into this divine wisdom Jesus is calling us to follow. Over the next six weeks we will be challenged by Christ’s invitation: “to come follow me.” And that is why our story from Luke is so important. Jesus was a gifted spirit person, the inspiration for our sermon title: Spirit Child in the Temple. But the Jesus we meet in our narrative, while clearly extraordinary, was not some super human beyond our ability to follow. The child Jesus was not forming birds out of clay and bringing them to life, or zapping dead his playmates with a curse. He was a precocious child, an exceptionally wise child, the elders in the temple might have referred to him as an old soul. Jesus was exceptional, but rather than someone to believe in, we are invited to follow him, to follow Jesus’ example and to do what Jesus calls us to do.

I saw a story that I think is the metaphor for discipleship. It is entitled “the dream shop.”

A person walked into a big shop and went straight to the counter. There he saw Jesus. The man asked: “Lord, what do You have to offer?”

In reply, Jesus asked: “What does your heart desire?”

“I want peace and happiness in all the world.”said the man.

Jesus smiled and replied: “Well, I don’t offer fruits here – just the seeds.”

Jesus will give us the seeds of all that we need. We still have to grow the fruits of the spirit ourselves.


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