Luke 2: 41-52
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
December 30, 2018
There is a story from the 19th century about a little boy sent home from school with a note pinned to his coat which read: “Thomas is too stupid to learn. School is a waste of time for him.” His name was Thomas Alva Edison. There are times when the world makes you feel dumb. Events happen beyond your control that leave you confused and powerless to do anything about it.
This Sunday’s gospel story is like a Christmas gift for anyone who sometimes feels that way. It’s a story about a little boy from a poor, uneducated family who stands before the scholars in the Temple, toe-to-toe with them, precocious and unafraid to take on those with knowledge and power. It reminds me of the statue of the fearless little girl staring down the raging bull on Wall Street.
Can you appreciate this story from where you sit today? Some of us may be too successful to appreciate this story the way some people do. But if you ever feel small and vulnerable, or if you ever feel intimidated by authority and power, I think you can appreciate this story.
Other than the birth stories that we read at Christmas, this is all the Bible tells us about Jesus until he turns thirty. It is a quick snapshot of his childhood. Why, of all the scenes in his early life…of all the memories he or Mary may have shared with others…why is this the only one that made it into the written accounts?
Skeptics are quick to point out that it is a common instinct in many cultures to tell childhood stories about great figures that feature surprising knowledge somewhere between the ages of ten and fourteen. They reference such stories of the Buddha in India, of Osiris in Egypt, of Cyrus the Great in Persia, and of Jewish legends about Moses. They could just as well point out stories about George Washington and the cherry tree.
But here is what I think. I think that the scene of Jesus before the scholars in the temple was put there to encourage everyone who feels small enough, vulnerable enough, little enough, to take courage. Jesus has been there. This is the story for you!
This little snapshot of Jesus the boy is told with delight by those made to feel little in the world, those who do not do well on their SAT, those who make a mess out of relationships or jobs or even their own lives. It is a story for anyone who shrinks in terror at filling out another application, or those who don’t have access to a computer and think of the web as the place in the corner of the garage that has a lot of spiders.
Those are the folk for whom this story is told. They hear it and say, “You tell ‘em, Jesus!” It is a story for the little people of the world. It culls out all the other stories of his childhood, and it tells this one event, probably from the time of his bar mitzvah, to remind folks that they are not abandoned by God. Mother Mary had sung, when she was told that she would have a baby, God is going to bring down the proud and lift up the lowly. And, of course, we are seeing it right here in this story, and we continue to see it throughout the story of his life and on into the stories of our lives.
So, in a way, this is the everyone’s story, this little story of Jesus astounding the scholars. Because in a funny way, everybody gets to be small someday! I wish I could tell the children that the bigger you get, the more grown-up you feel and the more certain you are of all the right answers. But no—no matter how big and adult you get, there are times when you feel small and vulnerable. It might be at work, or at home, or in the hospital. It happens to everyone eventually.
This story says, “He’s been there!” He knows what it’s like! Luke tells us that, after amazing the scholars in the temple, Jesus returned home with his parents, back home where he increased in wisdom and in stature, which is a fancy Bible way of saying that he grew up. But he never got so big that he couldn’t remember what it was like to stand before the educational, intellectual, theological powers and be made to answer. He never got so tamed and refined that he got over his youthful tendency to stand before the powers-that-be and ask them the tough questions.
Later in the gospel of Luke, Jesus says, They will hand you before Kings and into law courts, they will test you, quiz you, force you to answer. But don’t be afraid! I will be with you. I’ve been there. They are just the sort of big shots I like to amaze and astonish!
This past week we gathered to celebrate the birth of Jesus. When God chose to come among us, the choice was to begin it in what every human being on earth goes through—a birth. The Word was made flesh in a tender, vulnerable little child.
In a way, Jesus never got over his ability to astonish the big and powerful people of the world. That may be bad news for anyone who is big and tough and powerful…good news when you are small and weak and vulnerable.
And that is some of us all the time and all of us some of the time.