Won’t you join me in this word of prayer?
Almighty, it is once again that you have given us this privilege to come together. And so, wherever we might find our feet planted, wherever we might be gathering with others as family or friends at home, in the movement throughout the highways and the byways, we pray that you would join us together. That you would pour your spirit out upon us, that you would fill us, hold us, unite us so that we might be prepared for the places that you are sending us. This. We ask in the wonderful name of Jesus. Amen.
Once again, we find ourselves thrust back into the situation where I meet you with my colleagues and those who are with us, joining us by way of the digital highway. And in preparation for this moment, wrestling with the scriptures, I came across just something that, as we walk together, I invite you to stay with me for just a few moments as we journey through this narrative in Luke. But while preparing, with all of the daily devotionals that I may be reading and listening to, one popped up that simply said, “Dear friends, we grow together when we help one another. We grow together. when we encourage one another. We grow together when we look out for each other”. We grow together, your faith will help me and my faith will help you. Friends let’s grow together.
I am reminded that spiritual growth is very difficult if we live our lives in solitude. We all need each other. Not only to encourage one another, but to help each other grow. That’s really what I want to center in on this morning. As we heard those words, “and Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man”, that we center in on one simple thought: that God expects us to grow. On this very first Sunday of the year, we meet together in this moment attempting to steady ourselves, to plant and root ourselves, or for some simply gain our footing to move forward into a new year. After a year, and if we’re honest, even more than a year, of shaking and shifting and turning. All of these have touched our physical, our psychological and spiritual realities.
We who are attempting to ground ourselves in the faith. And in particular, those who claim Christianity as our faith, we step into a new year examining ourselves, as well as the surroundings that we are living in. A new year raises questions that are motivated by reflections on days gone by. While we were asking many questions, we do ask the question oftentimes at the beginning of a new year, that may be put this way: who am I? And who am I becoming?
You may have asked other questions. When we look at the beginning of a new year in terms of what is my physical health at this point, how much weight do I have and how much weight do I want to lose? How is my career, my vocation, am I happy or unhappy? What are the state of my finances as I begin a new year? And looking at family and friends and all around, we ask a multitude of questions and place our expectations within them. But there are moments when we reflect deeply. And many years ago, an evangelist and a noted biologist, Henry Drummond wrote, “A man will often have to wrestle with his God, but not for growth”. It is fascinating to me and troubling to hear so many individuals at times, wrestling with God and wrestling with their faith, simply focused on what they can get without ever giving thought to maturing into all that God has created us to be. Our wrestling with God and our instruments of faith are often tools and moments that we use simply to focus in on elevation and not maturation.
How can I attain this? How can I grow into that? How can I get that promotion? How can I find a better place within society? We look outside and spend very little time growing within. The gospel writer Luke attempts to bring us further into the life of Jesus Christ. And on the heels of the birth narrative, Luke moves us into this important and memorable adolescent moment in the life of Jesus Christ. It has always been a wonder for me, however, and perhaps other numerous writers and preachers and scholars have wondered the same thing, as to why we have so little recorded about Jesus’ life while growing up or prior to his public ministry. But it should be noted that Luke is writing this gospel and subsequently the record that he captured, in order that he might communicate to someone by the name of Theophilus, and perhaps even a larger group that he knew would be reading this letter, and this record that he had put in place. That he connected with them and Theophilus’ influences, because he highly regarded them and perhaps highly regarded that there was something they needed to know. They needed to hold on to the truth and to the facts about this man named Jesus.
Luke makes his aim very clear at the very onset of the gospel, where he writes, “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us. Just as they were handed down to us by those who were first, were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught”. Luke makes clear that he has made an intentional decision to draw up an orderly account of what had been passed to him by eyewitnesses.
There may have been some incomplete or confusing and perhaps even false narratives, circulating at the time, some embellished, but Luke is writing the detailed information given to him by eyewitnesses and servants of the word in order that Theophilus and the others around him may know with certainty, the things that they had been taught. Luke is not just passing the reports. He makes very clear that he has carefully investigated everything from the beginning so that he, and hopefully Theophilus, might be able to stand with confidence on their witness about the life, the ministry and the salvation that has come to us through Jesus Christ. Luke helps us to see and understand that what Jesus said and what Jesus did must be seen together, and not as individual components. To give a witness of Jesus’ life is to stay at the center of Jesus’ life.
As we begin a new year with so much uncertainty around us, to me this gospel is inviting us and presents to us an invitation and an opportunity as well as a responsibility, to ground ourselves with certainty about what God has made available to us through Jesus. We must always remember that the scriptures and the word have come to us for both our hearing and our doing. So that we would reveal not just our knowledge of God, but everyone who comes into contact with us might get a glimpse into the character of God. In this time, when we are trying to put some distance between us and the pandemic, where once again, we are gathered in a place that is empty, where once again, you’re sitting in rooms, perhaps by yourself and with others, keeping distance. We have been given this chance to put some distance between what might be called community, real community, and chaos. Between where we find ourselves as loving individuals or those who are carrying hate within us. We are given an opportunity at the beginning of this year, walking through just for a few moments to wrestle with the distance between injustice and justice.
We are living in this moment, the beginning of a new year and a transformative season. When we are hearing the talk of resolutions, new commitments, new habits, and those who I’m speaking to now, some of you have already made those statements to yourselves. You have shared with others about what you plan on doing differently. We would talk about change and transformation all while witnessing crowds and listening to conversations and the rush to return to old habits and routine. The birth of Jesus Christ brings us face to face with a God who is trying to lift us, encourage us and invite us into a relationship with God and each other through the revelation of God’s love for us.
When wrestling with this text, the context of this text all while being called to look out into the present moment in light of this text, I had to ask myself, how much would really be different this year than last year? Obviously, the world, and in particular, the manner in which individuals saw and treated one another, changed as a result of the birth of Jesus Christ. But we get a chance in this gospel to see that something happened as he grew, not just physically, but he grew in wisdom and stature in favor with God and with others. If we’re not careful, we could continue to stay right there in the birth narrative, continue to stay right there. We could continue to just be celebrating what God has given to us. But when we are listening intently and examining carefully, what we find is that God also expects something from us. That God expects us to grow.
Luke gives us a glimpse into a significant moment of the early years when we see Jesus practicing and engaging in habits that were essential for his growing and wisdom and stature. And once and only once is the curtain lifted on the years between his birth and the public ministry. Once and only once do we find a narrative like this. Once and only once is it written down and captured. And to me that tells me there’s something that we need to take from this moment. The things that were hidden in Mary’s heart that were shared that while others overlooked it Luke said, let me capture this moment. Luke could have focused on other occurrences. I’m sure he heard them. And the stories that were told that would allowed us to hold on to the expectations, and to the occurrences of Jesus being involved in fun-filled moments, his friends, the games, the comfort, the security, the vision, and the provision provided by God that were given to us by God. But Luke lifts the only account shared in the gospels of Jesus’ adolescence in order that we might see right away, that God expects us to grow.
God expects us to grow in order that we would meet the challenges that are ahead of us. That we might be able to grow, not just because of the influences, but at times we would grow in spite of the occurrences. That we would grow and stand strong, that we would grow and sturdy ourselves, that we would grow and be able to speak when others are quiet. To stand up, when others are sitting down. To do, when other folk are ready to give up. God expects us to grow in order that we might love our enemies. To grow through God’s spirit in order that we would be able to grow and become strong enough to overcome what might defeat. Those who might just be moving in ordinary thoughts. Simply put, God expects us to grow in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and with others.
We could, quickly grab onto this scriptural text and focus simply on the fact that Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, were devout in their practice of religion. And many of us are very devout in our habits, our rituals and routines. As the scripture says, they went to Jerusalem every year, every year, for the Passover festival. All had proceeded normally in the text, all moved as it had for years. Everyone, in particular Mary and Joseph, had participated in the expected rituals and routines set forth by the festival. I am comfortable in concluding that most were heading home, as the text says, and they were excited about God’s protection. They were excited by the fact of their recommitment to their faith. They most likely concluded that they had met everyone’s and even their own expectations. But as Luke makes a prominent shift, his focus drops us in on a moment that was designated for inspirational and spiritual inclusion. In the 12th year of Jesus’ life, something happened that was so important that it had to be noted in the scriptures.
Every year, Mary and Joseph went up to the festival as was the custom, but at the conclusion of the festival, there is an unexpected occurrence. It was an in occurrence in the life of Jesus, but it was a disturbance for Mary and Joseph. And for those of us who are reading the text, maybe we need to not just see the occurrence, but we need to recognize the disturbance. That there often times when God is moving, and he disturbs our routine. When God is moving, and he upsets what we are in a rush to do what we’ve always done. When we are trying to just see it the way we’ve always seen it. But in this moment, Jesus disturbs their routine to go home and say, I’ve done what I needed to do. And I hope that I’m disturbing some that are watching today, that at the conclusion of this service, you’re not saying I’ve done my job. I attended worship today.
Jesus had encouraged and engaged himself in something that his parents had not considered, and not expected. Mary and Joseph had participated in the festival and are heading home concluding everything was in order. And how many times do we leave worship feeling like everything is in order? And the real disorder is not what’s going on outside of us, but the disorder is what’s going on inside of us. We have not come to love each other the way we need to love each other. We have not come to commit ourselves to serving each other the way we need to serve each other. We are not seeing beyond the moment. We are living without vision. And without vision the people perish. The problem was something. When we look in this text, the problem was something, or let me be very specific, someone was missing.
They looked in the usual places and could not find Jesus. There is an expectation that we would gather. There is an appropriate place for all of our expectations of rituals routines, but too often, we come together thinking that our participation has met God’s expectations. We have been absolved of our sins. We feel we have offered our sacrifices. We have then moved to a rush to go back to what has always been done without considering if Jesus is with us. We sing songs. I’ll take ’em everywhere that I’ll go. We do things that say Jesus is with me, everything is all right. But we head back, leaving him behind. Jesus, however, is moved by the festival to achieve more by growing more. He’s preparing himself for what we will be walking through in weeks and days and years to come. He’s preparing himself for the witness and to give great witness of what this gospel full story is all about, which we lift from week to week, we recite and we say what we believe. But Jesus is preparing himself to handle the difficult moments.
As Mary and Joseph turn around from a day’s journey and three days searching, they find Jesus in what may be the last place they look. Jesus is in the temple courts, listening and asking questions. For three days his parents had been rocked with anxiety. It must have been frustrating for Mary as she was looking for Jesus, but Jesus expected that she should know where to find him. Listen to his response. And the first recorded words of Jesus in Luke’s gospel, come to us in the form of a question, as Jesus could not understand why it took so long to find him as they made the temple court, the last place of their search. He simply says, “why were you searching for me?” He asked, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my father’s house?” That being there meant more than just routine. Being there meant growing a little bit more. Stretching a little bit more, exercising a little bit more. Having to just hold on just a little bit more. There was no question as to who his father was in his witness and the activity that had captured his attention and now shaping his life. What I’ve learned is that our growth is not measured by the quantity of our religious routine. But our growth should be measured by the quality of our relationship with God and our neighbors.
Once again, someone may be sitting somewhere and saying that I’m not able to be here, but God is with you. You’re not able to be there, but I remind you, God is with you. You’re leaving space and saying, I can’t check the box that I’ve done certain things, but the truth is, you still have expectations of growing, right where you are planted. We should not take our spiritual pulse when we have been enraptured by the music, take our spiritual pulse when the drama of our religious ritual is going on. But we ought to take our religious and our spiritual pulse when we are welcoming the stranger, helping the needy, setting the captive free and loving each other in the like manner that Jesus loved us. That’s the time to tell if we have really grown and if we have really come alive.
Well, before I go, I remind you that at it’s important for us to grow in wisdom and in stature, in favor with God and each other.
And during this week, once again, we’ve lost a great witness in the Archbishop Desmond Tutu. And when he spoke about often, and many of us will hear this. Throughout the years that I’ve heard this, he often put it in his own terms, that he often spoke of this philosophy that exists within. Hear the Zulu language and Zulu philosophy called Ubuntu. And he would say, and many of them often say “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”, which means that a person is a person through other persons. We affirm our humanity when we acknowledge the humanity of others. He would say, “It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and inextricably bound in your humanity. I am human because I belong”. And he says, “It speaks of wholeness. It speaks of about compassion. A person with ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm, generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming to others, and do not feel threatened that others are able and good. For they have proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong to a greater whole. They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, that they are diminished when others are oppressed. And diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are”. The quality of Ubuntu gives people, resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge, still human, despite all efforts to dehumanize them. And so with that thought, we are called and expected to grow. Not grow just in physical state, but to grow where we can love our God and love our neighbor. And if you forget how to love them, remember, love them the way Jesus loved you. This year let’s grow.