…our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made Man.
— Charles Wesley, ‘Let earth and heaven combine’
It’s quite normal these days for people not to believe in God. For example, I met a man at a party in Chile when we were visiting our daughter a few years ago. He asked me what I did, so I told him I was a pastor. He said, ‘So you believe in God? I am an atheist.’ I sized the situation up as quickly as I could and suggested we have a chat over a bottle of wine. (We were in Chile, after all!)
My new friend readily agreed.
We had a good conversation (he spoke English quite well, which was good as my Spanish was pretty ordinary back then).
Predictably, neither of us convinced the other. But honestly, I wasn’t trying to convince him; I was just trying to build bridges. And share a bottle of good Chilean wine.
He was surprised that I thought that God could save people who weren’t Christians. That God could save even atheists. He asked me if I taught that, and I said that I did.
Whatever teaching he had received about God, it seems that it was of a God who is remote and implacable. A God who sees your sins and takes note of each and every one. A God who balances the books at the end of your life by throwing you into hell.
He had rejected that God. I told him that I have too. In fact, I also didn’t believe in the God that he didn’t believe in. I joined him in his unbelief in that God.
The God I do believe in is not remote; I believe in Immanuel, God with us. I believe in the God who came to us in Jesus Christ. A God who took risks to win our hearts.
A human God, who needs his mother Mary to feed him with her milk and to change his nappy. A human God who passed through the vulnerable years of childhood, and who was once twelve.
This is the story we have in our Gospel Reading today, the story of a twelve year old boy searching for his identity. A story of a rather precocious child of twelve, on the verge of adulthood in his time and place; it’s mainly a story of relationships. The relationships are far more important than whether Jesus was clever or not.
In my reading of the story, Jesus wasn’t so much wondering whether he’d be a carpenter when he grew up (that was a given), as he was exploring his identity.
He had his parents, Mary and Joseph; but there was more. He felt a call upon his life. What was it though?
We shouldn’t think Mary and Joseph were bad parents. The family had been to Jerusalem for the annual Passover. A bunch of people would travel together from Nazareth, probably men in one group, women and children in another.
At the age of twelve, Jesus could be in either group. He could be with the men, or with the women and kids. So it’s not surprising that Joseph and Mary both assumed Jesus was with the other parent.
Any parent can imagine the absolute panic they felt as they returned to Jerusalem. Had someone taken him?
In the end, he’s in the temple amazing the teachers of the law with ‘his understanding and his answers’.
Now, Mary rebukes him: ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’
And Jesus gives her an answer fit for a twelve year old: ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’
Jesus was coming to realise that his relationship with God was something unique.
But it wasn’t a great way to answer his mum, was it? Yet you don’t really expect a twelve year old boy, not even Jesus, to empathise with his parents.
He was growing up, and he still had a lot of growing up to do. Still, Luke says,
Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.
Jesus matured, as you’d expect anyone to.
There are people who have imagined that even as a baby Jesus had all knowledge. How does that work? How could a baby of just a few weeks or months be all-knowing—especially when Luke says he grew in wisdom?
In my first year of theological college, a lecturer asked us to write answers to a series of questions. We were instructed to write the first answer that came into our heads, and not to think about it.
One question was this (don’t think about it, let an answer just pop into your head):
‘Was Jesus top of his class at school?’
What was your first reaction? Mine was Yes, of course he was—and then to think Why? Why should Jesus be top of his class? He didn’t save us by his knowledge and cleverness. He saved us because in him God is with us, and he loved us to the very end. His IQ is irrelevant.
Perhaps it’s a shame we don’t have more information about his childhood. That’s what they thought around AD 150, so a number of legends grew around Jesus as a boy.
We have some of them in a book called The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. I’m glad this Infancy Gospel isn’t part of the Bible; it shows the boy Jesus as a real show off and incipient sociopath.
For example, for no apparent reason he makes twelve sparrows out of clay, and they come to life and fly off. And when anyone wrongs the young Jesus, they immediately die or are smitten with blindness.
Thank God that’s not in the New Testament!
Some people find it hard to believe in God because they see God as some kind of controlling superpower who competes with us for dominance.
But in Christ, God shows us what God is like: a God who empties himself and who takes on the form of a servant for us.
The God who Jesus calls ‘Father’ is love. The God who calls Jesus ‘Son’ is gentle. The God who comes to us as Holy Spirit desires us to be like Jesus.
I read something interesting on Christmas Eve:
…we have tended to assume that Jesus became human like us, but now, illuminatingly, we discover that we are invited to become human like him.
That is our invitation, this is what we are called to be. This is how God takes shape within us, by coaxing us to become as human as Jesus.
If Jesus had to grow, so do we. At twelve, Jesus was a bit offhand to his mum. That’s ok, every twelve year old does that sometimes.
But the Gospel of John has Jesus saying this: ‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.’
Jesus goes from an incredulous ‘Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ to telling us there’s a place for everyone in his Father’s house. A place for you, and for me. It’s not just ‘my’ Father’s house any more; it is ‘our’ Father’s house.
Jesus could grow because as the Son, he made room for his Father. We need to make room for our Father too, so that we can grow ‘to become human like him’. Amen.
Preached at West End Uniting Church, 30 December 2018