Sunday, January 3, 2021

Phil Kniss: Jesus the inquisitive

Luke: God’s Story Fulfilled — The Young Jesus
Luke 2:41-52

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So, are you ready for our deep dive into the Gospel of Luke?
For the next four months,
we will move thoughtfully and thoroughly through this book.

But before we start the journey,
we should survey the landscape.
Whenever I go on a hike,
I study the terrain ahead of time with a topographical map.

One day last week I hiked in the George Washington National Forest,
with two of my daughters and a son-in-law.
It was a hike none of us had done before.
So eager were we to get into the woods,
that we all forgot to download the map to our phones
before we got out of cell phone range.
We had only a general idea where we were heading,
and figured we could depend on signs.
Sure enough, we found a well-marked sign,
pointing up a well-worn trail,
so off we went.

Now, if any of us had looked at the map first,
before walking half a mile on that beautiful, but wrong trail,
we wouldn’t have climbed about 1,000 feet higher than we wanted,
and in the wrong direction.
But then—we’d have also missed a great aerobic workout,
and a perfect sermon illustration.

So let’s pause a minute, and study Luke’s topographical map.
We just spent a couple weeks in the first two chapters,
stories around Jesus’ birth narrative.
Now, from here through chapter 9,
we’ll follow Jesus all around Galilee—
his home territory,
as he goes from town to town preaching, teaching, healing,
proclaiming God’s reign.
That will take us up to the beginning of Lent.
And then fittingly, in chapters 9-19,
Luke gives us a good long look
at Jesus’ good long journey from Galilee toward Jerusalem,
as he walks away from home,
toward the center of religious and political power,
with a message that will trouble the powers,
and cause a lot of trouble for him,
during an eventful final week of his life,
in chapters 19-24.
That takes us up through Easter,
and then we’ll look some at Acts, and the early church.

This is all very well organized and laid out by Luke.
He tells us so, in the first couple verses of the book:
“I have decided to write an orderly account . . .”

Luke doesn’t tell a story in the abstract.
He places it in a context.
For his mostly Jewish readers,
Luke wants to draw a line connecting Jesus with their tradition,
with their Torah,
with their scriptures,
and to draw that line straight through Jesus to the church,
a new people of God.

Like other Gospels,
Luke was written down during the church age,
written by and for the church.
So to his church audience, Luke says,
the Jesus story is trustworthy
because it fulfills what God has said and done all along.

His church community was likely in distress and struggling.
At best, they were labeled a fringe group.
At worst, dangerous heretics worthy of death.
Luke reassures his troubled church.
Tells them they are in the right place.
He validates them.
He says, the church is in continuity with Israel of old.
God always had this purpose,
and Jesus fulfilled it, Luke says.
“You Jesus followers are in that same stream.
You are right where God wants you!
Be strong.
Be courageous.
This is the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth.
Believe it. Live it.”

That’s why so much of the birth narrative these last few Sundays
kept referring to the prophets.
Luke was drawing that connecting line.

And in today’s story, about the boy Jesus left behind in the temple,
same thing.

And by the way, in case you’re worried,
this is not a story about bad parenting.
Joseph and Mary had every reason to assume Jesus was with them.
They were traveling as a large community.
Like most pre-teens in that culture,
Jesus was accountable to the whole clan,
not just to his nuclear family.

In any case, this story spotlights Luke’s main literary agenda.
Jesus is connecting with his faith heritage, early on.

Now, what exactly was Jesus doing back at the temple?
We should not conclude that Jesus was super-human,
being something other than a 12-year-old boy.
Yes, we’d like to think Jesus, the all-knowing Son of God,
engaged the priests and Torah scholars on their level,
or even, that he instructed them,
correcting their errors.

I don’t think so.
I do think there was something stirring in him.
No, he did not yet grasp his peculiar role
in God’s cosmic salvation story.
But at 12, it was enough that the Spirit was stirring in him,
and he was being attentive and inquisitive.
He inherited that trait from his mother.

Yes, the Mary who pondered.
The Mary who treasured things in her heart.
In the temple that day,
we see a boy being his mother’s child.

And maybe we should take even more mystery out of this story,
and admit Jesus was being a fairly normal 12-year-old.
Okay, maybe not all 12-years-olds have the maturity
to ask searching questions of religious leaders.
But 12-year-olds are by nature, inquisitive.
Jesus was being a healthy human 12-year-old.
Like his age-peers,
he had his eyes and ears wide open.
He had his senses keenly tuned.

And speaking of attentive 12-year-olds,
here’s another line that connects Jesus
to the Old Testament prophetic tradition.
Remember the story of the boy Samuel,
sent to live and work alongside the priest Eli?
He heard a voice in the night that Eli couldn’t hear.
Because Samuel has his ears tuned and attentive.
He heard the voice, moved toward it,
and asked good questions.

It’s adults who think this is unusual.
Many of us, I fear, grow up to be less inquisitive.
We grow less comfortable with unanswered questions.
We survive by putting the world into neat categories.
And once we have it categorized,
we can put away our unsettling ambiguity,
and heave a sigh of relief,
and stop listening.
At least we used to.
Maybe 2020 will have cured us of the impulse
to make our world neat and tidy.

But children never stop listening.  They never stop looking.
There is very little that children miss.
They notice.
They live with their eyes and ears wide open.
They pay attention to what’s happening around them.
Usually, they aren’t afraid to get up close,
so they can hear better and see better.

That, dear friends . . . dear adult friends,
is what we need to learn better how to do.
I think if I were to make only one
New Year’s Resolution for myself,
having survived 2020 and preparing for 2021,
it is to keep my eyes open.
Not just my literal eyeballs.
The eyes of my heart.
The eyes of my soul.
The part of me that moves toward
that which grabs my attention,
not blindly, but with open eyes.
Ready to let my reality be examined,
even as I examine the reality of the world around me.
And with nuance.

I’ve had enough of dividing ourselves into red and blue,
rural and urban,
educated and uneducated,
and on and on.

There is no such thing as a red state or blue state,
unless you are counting votes.
Otherwise, let’s be honest.
Every state is a multi-colored and multi-cultural
shade of purple.
In every rural community,
you will find some degree of sophistication
and enlightenment and worldly wisdom.
And in every hip urban community,
you will discover shades of ignorance and rigidity,
and unwillingness to learn something new.

I do not want to be lulled into thinking
that a change of political party in the White House . . . or the Senate,
will mean a fundamental change in our human condition.
We will still fumble and stumble through life.
We will make mistakes.
And to put it theologically, we will sin.

I want to be like Jesus.
That is, the 12-year-old boy Jesus,
who didn’t yet fully know who he was.
I want to ask good questions.
I want to wonder about things.
I want to imagine a better world.
I want to keep my eyes and ears open,
even, or especially, when
the one right in front of me is someone I don’t understand.

So here we are on the first Sunday of 2021,
still worshipping together while scattered,
still trying to figure out how to be a real body,
when our bodies can’t share the same space.

The Lord’s Table can help us in this regard.
The table always, always, represents
something we have not yet fully realized.
God has done God’s work.
But on our part, the table is an aspiration, a hope,
not a done deal.
Today the body of Christ is fractured in many different ways—
culturally, economically, theologically,
and now COVID keeps us apart physically.
That does not change the reality of what this Table means.
Jesus Christ is the host at this meal.
And Jesus has one body—the church,
in all its varied expressions,
in all its frail imperfections.
Jesus makes us one, because of who he is and what he did.

That story will unfold for us in Luke, for many weeks to come.
But today we celebrate the end point—
the oneness we can have with God and each other,
because of the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

So, thank you, 12-year-old Jesus,
for living your life with eyes wide open.
And help us, Risen Christ, to live the same way today.

Let us now come to the table,
from wherever you are,
join us in Spirit and in action,
as we partake of the bread and cup.

Near the end of Jesus’ ministry journey,
he and his disciples ate their last Passover meal together.
It says in Luke 22,
19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it,
and gave it to them, saying,
“This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood,
which is poured out for you.”

May God bless this bread and cup
to our physical and spiritual nourishment.  Amen.

Now, if you wish, as the singers sing,
please join us
by partaking of the bread and cup at home,
or wherever you find yourself this morning.

—Phil Kniss, January 3, 2021

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