Jesus - Finding Ourselves
A sermon on Luke 2:41-52 & Colossians 3:12-17 by Nathan Nettleton, 31 December 2006
With Jesus as our pattern, we find a new identity in our uncompromising allegiance to God's ways.
An eleven year old girl was lost in Dandenong this week. She jumped out of her parents car because they were fighting, and ran off. The trouble was that she had only just moved to Melbourne and didn't know her way around. There was a frantic search for a day before she found her way into the Dandenong Police Station, safe and sound. After their terrifying ordeal, I suspect it may be a long time before her parents fight in front of her again!
Most of you know the feeling of desperately searching for someone or something you've lost. Perhaps it was your lost keys when you were already running late. Perhaps it was that all-important file somewhere on your computer that you need right now, but where did you put it? Perhaps it was a dog or a cat that had run off and was who-knows-where in the busy streets of the neighbourhood. Perhaps, like those parents in Dandenong and Mary and Joseph in tonight's gospel story, you've had the awful experience of having to search for a lost child, and you know how the chill of dread and panic seems to grow by the minute, beyond anything you could imagine.
Some of you too know the feeling of searching for yourself; trying to dig through the layers of baggage that you have accumulated while growing up to find your true self - who you really are. In some ways it is a life-long quest for everyone, but for some people it is more acute and difficult. Some of us have been so loaded up with shoulds and oughts and fears and expectations that we have only the most flimsy and fragile sense of who we are under all that - of "who we are in our silence,"when the noise of all those external messages is gone and we stand naked in the silence of God where we are known for who we really are in the depth of our being.
This gospel story has elements of both these quests in it. Mary and Joseph have lost their child and are desperately searching for him, but meanwhile, the twelve year old Jesus is taking some new steps in discovering who he really is and what his life is all about. But there is something else going on in this story, something that is easily missed beneath the usual Sunday school simplifications of its message, and I think that it will help us in finding some worthwhile road signs from the story. In the Vigil Service on Christmas Eve, I pointed out that Luke's account of Jesus' birth could only have been written by someone who knew how his life story played itself out and who was looking for early signs of what was to come. The same is true of this story. This is not just an interesting incident from Jesus' childhood. If Luke was trying to give a potted history of Jesus' childhood, I'm sure we would have more than one story to fill in the thirty year gap between his infant presentation and his baptism.
Instead, this story too, is the gospel story in miniature; a foreshadowing of the bigger story that would play itself out in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. This is the first of two journeys to Jerusalem recounted in Luke's gospel. The other one starts in chapter nine when Jesus "sets his face toward Jerusalem." It is not until until chapter nineteen that he gets there, and when he does, within a week he has been lynched by a mob and strung up to die. Like that one, this earlier journey to Jerusalem is also for the festival of Passover. Jewish boys celebrate their Bar Mitzvah at twelve years of age, their coming of age, so it is likely that this Passover was the first that Jesus would be able to participate in with the status of a man instead of a child. But look at Mary and Joseph's experience of the Passover in Jerusalem. Like the later disciples, they go to Jerusalem for the festival with Jesus, but they lose him there. Suddenly the one who is the centre of their life is no longer with them. Where is he? How long is it before their grief and fear are overcome by the reappearance of Jesus? Three days. Three days lost, or three days in the tomb, Jesus the Passover lamb is lost to us for three days in Jerusalem.
But then when we find him again, it is not just the same as it always was. No, instead we find that Jesus is not "ours". He does not define himself by his relationship to us, or our family, or our nation. He does not take his cues from the things that seem important to us, or the agendas of our family or our nation. Instead we find that Jesus defines himself by his relationship to God, and he will not simply go along with whatever we think is most important. Now he is about his Father's business and now the challenge to us is to decide whether we can stop trying to bend him to our business and instead join him in attending to the Father's business.
As we mark the end of one year and the beginning of another, many of us find ourselves reflecting on what we need to leave behind and how we need to grow and change in the coming year, to be the people we were created to be. Much of this is done by looking for role models. We recognise attributes in others we wish to emulate. Sometimes that can be toxic, just another layer of baggage which takes us no closer to our true selves. But sometimes we recognise something in another that resonates so deeply and truly within us that we know it is calling forth something good which is already there. In the letter to the Colossians, the Apostle gives a lot of attention to this matter of imitating others, and in the extract we heard, he urges us to model ourselves on Jesus, to forgive as he forgives, and to clothe ourselves "in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience," and above all, "with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony."
But such modelling is not just a simple "how to be good like Jesus" kind of thing. The letter to the Colossians as a whole makes it clear that we are modelling ourselves on Jesus because in doing so is our salvation. I'm not saying that we are only saved if we do good works like Jesus. I'm saying that we have a decision to make; to follow Jesus in his obedience to the Father and his offering of himself in love and mercy as the Passover lamb, or to follow all the other things that demand our allegiance and seek to employ us in their business which is not the business of the Father. We find ourselves and are saved by following the right model, or we lose ourselves and are destroyed by following the wrong model, but everyone follows something, because to do so is human and altogether unavoidable.
Yesterday, Sadam Hussein was executed. I have no doubt that Sadam Hussein was an evil man who presided over monstrous atrocities. But I also have no doubt that Sadam Hussein's execution was a classic bit of scapegoating. Having learned his lust for wealth and power from his role models in the west, and having been funded and supported by those same western powers, he stopped cooperating with the business of his masters, with the agendas and interests of the western superpowers. Cut loose from their control, he became an example of the way violence and power get out of control and strike fear into everybody. To get the system back into balance, we project all our own violence and lust for power onto one scapegoat, and we kill him to rid the earth of this threat. In this case, the time lag between scapegoating him and killing him is such that we already know that his execution will not even make a dint in the out-of-control violence. Bizarrely, even ridding ourselves of one as evil as Sadam Hussein only serves to expose our own violence and further condemn us all.
Every such instance of scapegoating calls us to make a choice. Will we join in the scapegoating, and thus model ourselves on the hostility and violence of the very system that produced Sadam, or will be align ourselves with the ultimate victim of the scapegoating system, with Jesus the Messiah, and learn from him the way of handing ourselves over to the Father's business, the business of absorbing bitterness and violence and returning only love and mercy. "Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony."
The signs of these things are already beginning to show in this story of the twelve year old Jesus, and even then he is a model for us to follow, in giving our allegiance to God and God's business before anything else. Beware of those who would abuse that though. As strongly as I want to assert the claim of allegiance to God above the idolatry of family that is so prevalent around us, I am also conscious that many people have co-opted the name of Christ to justify their neglect and abuse of their families. The call to love as Christ loves means loving our families too, and no one is disposable in the realm of God.
Jesus is not the only role model for us in this story. Mary is held up by Luke as a role model too. One of the little refrain lines in Luke's telling of the stories appears in this episode too: "Mary treasured (or pondered) all these things in her heart." The Apostle too urged us to "let the word of Christ dwell in you richly." It is a similar idea, and it is interesting that neither emphasise thinking about these things in your head. There is nothing wrong with thinking about them too, but the call is to ponder them in your heart and let them dwell in you richly. To state it simply (and far from comprehensively), don't try to think these things through to some kind of neat solution. They are not a puzzle to be solved. They are a mystery to be lived; a mystery to allow to take root within the secret places of our hearts. They are the things that speak to us at the core of our being, to who we are in our silence and nakedness before God. It is there, in the silence of our hearts, that they will enable us to truly find Jesus, and to find our true selves, so that in the real life decisions, we will become people of love and truth who offer ourselves in Christ for the life of the world.