by Chris Ritter
Over the Christmas break I mapped out all our remaining messages from Luke and was so sad to see how little we will be able to cover between now and April. Luke is the largest book in the New Testament and there is so much great material that I want to cover with you about Jesus, discipleship, and Christian living. But hard choices had to be made.
There is far too much here to go section by section, much less verse by verse. Unless the Holy Spirit leads otherwise, we will start off in January talking about the preparation and launch of Jesus’ ministry. It turns out that the same things that went into making a good beginning for Jesus are the same things that will help us make a good beginning in 2021.
Then we are going to spend four weeks on the parables of Jesus. I have given preference to the parables that are unique to Luke’s Gospel, like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. Since hard choices had to be made, I am also favoring things we have not covered recently. For instance, Luke tells us a lot of great things about Peter, but we did a whole sermon series on the life of Peter recently, so we won’t cover that again.
In March we are going to look at themes in Luke about how Jesus views issues that are very much with us to this day. Luke gives us a unique lens on gender, class, and finances. And the last leg of the journey will be the Passion of the Christ as provided by Luke. We will end our journey on Easter, April 4, and the week following as we visit the Road to Emmaus.
The Beauty of a Long Faithfulness
I would have loved to have spent a whole week on the presentation of Jesus when he was forty days old. Mary and Joseph bring their baby boy to Jerusalem for the rite of purification dictated in the Law of Moses. The family was to offer a lamb as a sacrifice. If they were poor, they could offer two doves and that is what they did.
While they are in the temple courts they have two separate encounters with older, prayerful saints who have been watching and longing for the consolation of Israel. The first was Simeon. The Holy Spirit had spoken to him that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah. On that day the Holy Spirit told him to go to the temple and nudged him toward this poor family. He takes the baby Jesus in his arms and prays, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.” He speaks a prophesy over Jesus and his mother.
The next person they encounter is an 84 year old woman named Anna. As a young woman, she had been married seven years when her husband died. She dedicated the rest of her life to prayer and the Lord’s service. She lived in the temple courts, praying and fasting for the redemption of Israel. She, too, comes up to Mary and Joseph and rejoices that God’s redemption had come.
If I had time to preach on this passage, I would talk to you about the beauty of a long faithfulness. Anna and Simeon are beautiful. Our culture treats old age as a curse. In the Bible, it is a great blessing. Luke opens his Gospel with Zechariah and Elizabeth and includes older adults as shining examples of faith.
Old people are valuable. The have gold in their teeth, silver in their hair, crystal stones in their kidneys, and titanium in their hips. Some are known even to produce natural gas. Proverbs says that gray hair is a crown of glory on the head of the righteous. God has so designed this world that, as we age, we slow down a bit. I think old age is a time to reflect and to pray. It is a time to focus on your legacy and learn to guide and encourage others instead of doing everything yourself. It is a time to prepare for eternity.
Normally speaking, we are not meant to run into eternity at 90 miles per hour. Time slows us down so that we can reconcile, repent, and relate. Anna and Simeon show us how to finish strong.
Nothing makes me quite so sad as an old fool. Sometimes you see videos posted on social media of old people acting out, cussing someone out, or talking dirty. I guess I think all older people should be like my grandparents were: loving, generous, kind, and prayerful.
There is something very beautiful about a long faithfulness. It is like a natural patina on a bronze that cannot be duplicated. Some beautiful things only develop through a process of time. It is a joy to see a young bride and groom. But this beauty cannot match that of a 63-year marriage that has weathered storms and trials and has remained strong.
But today we are going to talk about the young, not the old. Luke’s Gospel is famous for giving us the only picture of Jesus when he was boy. Don’t you wonder what Jesus was like as a kid? (Wouldn’t you hate to have him as a brother: “Why can’t you be more like Jesus?”) But Jesus did give his parents fits at least once, and Luke brings us the story. It happened when Jesus was twelve years old. (Our video this morning features some twelve-year-olds from our church reading the scriptures for us.)
41 Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. 42 When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. 43 After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. 44 Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”
49 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he was saying to them.
51 Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.Luke 2:41-52
Let’s talk about being twelve. It is the last of the “tween years.” A lot of parents know age twelve as the year everything changes. But kids grow at different rates. Some have blossomed by age twelve. Others, like me, are still waiting to blossom! I don’t know of anyone who wants to go back and re-live seventh grade, but few would refute this is a formative, important year. There is a reason why we do confirmation and bar/beth mitzvahs at this age. It is the threshold to the adult you will become.
Do the Stuff
Young Jesus had the advantage of a pious, religiously observant upbringing in Nazereth. Luke tells us that when he was eight days old, Joseph and Mary had him circumcised and formally gave him the name assigned by Gabriel (Luke 1). When he was forty days old, he was dedicated in the temple as the Law of Moses dictated. Every year, his whole family travelled many miles to Jerusalem to observe the Passover celebration there.
His family did “the stuff.” Every once in a while I run into a sincere Christian who somehow feels that doing the routine religious stuff is somehow beneath them. “Communion? It is just a symbol… I can have communion anytime. Baptism? That is cool and all, and I might do it if the mood strikes me. Aren’t these the mere externals of religion?” My advice: Do the stuff. It’s not about you proving you have a faith that places you somehow above the ordinary. Do the ordinary. The ordinary is the base camp that must be reached before going higher.
Luke reminds us that God does the extraordinary through people who do the ordinary. God encounters Zechariah as he is serving in the temple. In a simple act of faithful obedience, Simeon and Anna get to meet Jesus. Do the stuff. It honors God. Wesley called them the “means of grace.” These are the normal channels through which God works in our lives. Don’t reject the routine.
2021 is a superb time to check on the status of your holy habits. If you have let something slip, this is the time to pick it back up. Some people want spiritual fireworks. Habits produce growth. If you are not baptized, talk to your pastor and set a date. Sometimes we American Protestants work so hard to prove that we are not religious that we miss the ordained ways that God reaches us.
It seems sort of obvious to say, but it is also a profound mystery. Jesus grew. He grew physically. He grew mentally. He grew spiritually. Luke tells us that he grew in wisdom. He need to learn things. Oh, the mystery of the Incarnation!
Growth is the opposite of comfort. For some of us, the riskiest thing we can do is stay as we are. Growth requires opening up to new ways of looking at things. So why this boyhood story?
It is significant in a few ways. First it is the only story is scripture that we have from Jesus’ boyhood. It helps us think about the mystery of the incarnation. This is the last mention of Joseph in the biblical narrative. Maybe Jesus needed to claim God as his Father in a new way because his earthly father would soon be passing away. This story also gives us the first recorded words of Jesus.
But it all starts with an emergency. Mary, Joseph, and their extended family have travelled to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Still today, Jewish families will toast on Passover, “Next year in Jerusalem.” It is the best place to celebrate this high holy day. They went every year, even though they lived a far distance and the trip required multiple overnight stays away from home. They travelled in a large caravan of neighbors and relatives. Once done with their religious observances in Jerusalem, the group travelled a full day back toward home before Jesus was recognized as missing.
They thought he had spent the day with his cousins and friends. They start asking around and calling for him. He was nowhere to be found. They spent a worried, sleepless night in the realization they would have to head back to the city at first light to look for him. It is probably a sign that Jesus was usually very reliable in that it took them a whole day to start worrying about him. He was not the sort of kid that you had to keep on a leash. This episode must have been somewhat out of character for him.
Here is another sermon I wish I had time to preach: “Looking for Jesus in all the wrong places.” Mary and Joseph started searching for Jesus in all the places they thought they might find him. Where would a twelve-year old be? They re-traced their steps. They checked all the arcades and bowling alleys and he was nowhere to be found.
Becky and I had the opportunity to wander around Jerusalem one Sunday afternoon in 2016. It was our only time away from the tour group. The streets today are much like the streets then… narrow, cobbled, and winding. They form a maze. All the shopkeepers are standing out trying to coax you in to look at their wares. Psalm 122 describes Jerusalem as a city “tightly compacted together.” We were always stopping to find landmarks so we could find our way back.
Three days is an extraordinarily long time to not know where you child is. Ten minutes can seem like ten hours. Did he get in the wrong caravan going who knows where? Having looked everywhere else, they go to the temple. This may have been their point of giving up. Did they go there to pray before giving up and heading home? But… there he was. They find him in the temple courts, sitting among the rabbis, listening to them, asking questions, and giving answers. Everyone was amazed at his understanding.
New Teachers for a New Season
Jesus was with teachers that he would not have access to back home. Jesus visiting the temple is like the nerdy math kid getting a field trip to MIT. Jerusalem was, well… Jerusalem. There was no greater place to learn about God.
Jesus was growing, and this meant that he needed new relationships, new teachers. Mary and Joseph did not have everything he needed. The synagogue back in Nazareth did not have everything he needed. He took this unscheduled opportunity to interact with people of deeper knowledge.
If Jesus had been from a wealthy family, they may have sent him to study in Jerusalem at about age twelve and throughout his teenage years. Jesus would have seen other young men sitting at the feet of their rabbis. One of them might have been young Saul of Tarsus who was about Jesus’ age and was taught at the feet of the famed rabbi Gamaliel. Jesus saw these lectures happening and realized that he needed to be in one of those circles… if only for a little while.
It is New Year’s and everyone seems to be talking about “leveling up” in their lives… at work, home, and with our health or finances. Growth requires new relationships. If you have the itch to be an entrepreneur, you need to get around people who are working to be their best. Read better books so you can ask better questions. If you want to take charge of your money, sit down with a financial planner.
Jesus was with these teachers just a few days, but he went away knowing what he needed to study, learn, and think about when he got home. His example shows us to look for the God-dream on the inside of each of us. Find someone who can help you unlock the next door. Ask them to invest in you. But first be ready to change. Don’t waste their time.
Growth does not happen steadily. It comes in spurts. Growth surges in our lives usually coincide with new relationships. I am always telling you to join a small group… and that it the best generic advice I can give for spiritual growth. But sometimes you need a different sort of group. Sitting around a screen and watching a 20 minute video is fine… but sometimes we need more.
Even accountability groups stall out after a while. “You don’t mess with me and my sins and I won’t mess with your issues.” There are times we need to shake up our group game. Go where the Holy Spirit is moving. Look for someone heading the direction you want to go.
I have been part of a lot of different groups over the years. Most of them, usually, were just playing spiritual patty-cake. The most life-changing groups include a volatile mix of God-chasers ready to break out of the routine. Jesus didn’t quit the “Sabbath School” in Nazareth, but he certainly began to augment it with other types of learning.
Mary scolds Jesus, “Why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”
Jesus: “Why were you searching for me?” [This is where I would have wanted to wring my kids’ neck.] Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
Jesus seems surprised that they would be looking for him anywhere besides the temple: “Where else would I be?”
We see in these first-recorded words of Jesus at least a glimmer of self-understanding in his divinity. No one really called God “Father” in the Jewish context… this is something that Jesus would later bring on the scene. When thinking about the boyhood of Jesus, I find myself wanting to ask the question made famous by Watergate: “What did [Jesus] know and when did he know it?”
Jesus knew enough about himself to know the next growth steps that he needed. Knowing what you don’t know (but need to know) is an important step for any of us. We don’t all need to know the same stuff. Old Testament professors need to know more Hebrew than I do as a pastor. But pastors better know at least a little Hebrew (I could definitely stand to learn more). Hebrew professors don’t need to know how to lead a congregation. But they better know how to navigate a contentious faculty meeting. If you want to go from cashier to assistant manager, you need to learn some new things. The question is: Who are you and where is God taking you?
What do you need to learn next? In The Me I Want to Be, John Ortberg says: ““Trying to grow spiritually without taking who you are into account is like trying to raise children on an assembly line.” Jesus understood that he didn’t just need to visit the temple to offer the yearly sacrifice. He needed to sit with the leading rabbis. A good question for us each to ask ourselves is, “Given my current situation, gifts, opportunities, and obstacles, what is God’s next growth step for me?”
Your next growth step may not be more study. Most of us are educated beyond our obedience. Our next spiritual growth step might include serving in a ministry, starting a new group, leading a team, or getting more faithful in prayer. Taking action is also part of spiritual growth. In fact, I believe the Holy Spirit often meets us as we are working for him. We sometimes learn to swim only by jumping in the deep end of the pool!
I should probably mention at this point that Young Jesus in the temple pre-figures the dramatic events later in Jesus’ life. Twenty-one years later, Jesus would take a scourge of cords and drive out the money-changers. His Father’s house was to be a place of prayer for all people and they had made it a den of thieves. Jesus would weep over the temple and the city in which it stood. He would prophesy that not one stone of that shining new temple would be left upon another. Luke’s Gospel starts in Jerusalem with Zechariah and ends with the disciples (after Jesus’ ascension), “returning to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God.”
I also see in this story the priority of the Kingdom of God. Family is important… very important. Family is a basic unit of human civilization, established by God in the Garden when he said, “A man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife.” But there is something more important than family: The Kingdom of God. Jesus would later call people away from their earthly families for Kingdom service. Jesus warned that allegiance to the kingdom might mean making enemies of your close family members. (Matthew 10:36). And here, at age twelve, Jesus is prioritizing the Kingdom of God over his mom and dad.
How He Grew
Luke tells us that Jesus went home and was obedient to his parents. (This was not the start of any troubled teenage years.). And Luke tells us how Jesus continued to grow: In wisdom, stature, in favor with God, and favor with others. This is the same way God would you to grow in 2021.
How will you grow more wise in 2021? If your finances are not in good shape, this might be the year to consult with a financial planner or take a course on money management. You can be in better financial shape this time next year if you get some information and put it into practice. What books will you read? If you are not a reader, there are still lots of ways to learn. Youtube and I-Tunes University has lots of lectures to listen to. There are so many podcasts these days. Who are the leading lights in your field of work? Find our what they are thinking about and what they are reading.
Jesus grew physically. Like me, you may be done growing taller, but it is no less important to attend to our physical health. Our bodies are “the temple of the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 6:19). How long has it been since you have been to the doctor? How is your cholesterol and blood pressure? Are you watching your weight? What is your exercise routine? Maybe this is the year to work with a personal trainer or find a walking buddy. I started out 2020 in horrible shape. The first two-months of lock-down were rough. I decided I needed to eat differently and move differently. I still have a way to go, but progress is possible. Find an accountability partner to help you gain traction. We have groups here at the church that meet together to weigh in and encourage one another.
Favor with God
There is nothing you can do to make God love you more. We don’t grow to God’s favor. But you can grow in God’s favor. The angels announced in Luke 2 that God’s favor is upon us all in terms of his saving work. Because of the work of Jesus, we are not fighting for a victory, but from a victory. How will you grow in God’s grace in 2021? This is the time to start holy habits of prayer and scripture study, or to up your game in those areas. Join a small group or challenge your existing group to go deeper. Jump into an existing ministry or start a new one. Our Director of Discipleship at First Methodist is offering individual appointments for anyone who wants to grow spiritually. Your pastor would also love to have a conversation with you about spiritual growth.
Favor with Others
The quality of our relationships is the quality of our lives. 2021 is a great time to grow our relationships. How is your marriage doing? How are you investing in your friendship? Is there someone with whom you need to reconcile? Is there something you need to forgive? How are your work relationships? Maybe there are key relationships that have been on “auto pilot” and in which you need to re-invest. If you don’t have many relationships, ask God to bring the right people into your life. It obviously takes two people to work on a relationship. But 2021 can be the year you take important steps to improve your part in the relationships in your life.
If Jesus needed to grow, we certainly need to grow. Let’s make 2021 a time of advancement in our wisdom, physical being, relationship with God, and relationships with others. Choose one thing from today’s message and take a simple action in the right direction. Growth is never comfortable, but it is always worth the effort.
I’m ninety years old, but I still benefit from your messages. Your insights are so valuable.
Thank you so much! May your 2021 be blessed.
I have a week off of work and was making a to-do list that seemed a little lacking.
But then… God lead me to this article, and I was so thankful because it outlines so many of the things I realize I need to add to my to-do list. I said “Thank you God for always giving me what I need when I need it”!!