I heard a story once about an old man who was asked by a visitor if any famous people had been born in his town. “Nope”, he replied; “just babies!”
The point, of course, is that no one starts out famous or great; we all start as babies, full of potential waiting to be unlocked. And in the same way, no one starts out as a mature Christian; we all start out as newborns in the faith, needing nourishment and guidance and protection as we learn to walk the Christian way. We get that guidance from parents, and grandparents, and godparents, and older Christians who intentionally set out to mentor us in our journey of faith. Parents are primary, of course, but they aren’t the only mentors we have; just as it takes a village to raise a child, so it takes a church to raise a Christian. So whether I am a parent, or a grandparent, or a godparent, or just an individual who wants to help young Christians grow in their faith, there are things I can do that will make a difference in the lives of the next generation of followers of Jesus.
As we think about this, we can get some guidance from the example of Mary and Joseph in our gospel reading for today. Now you might be laughing at the very idea that we might have something to learn about raising kids from Joseph and Mary. “Yeah, right! If I had Jesus as a son, I’d probably do okay as well!” Notice how we assume that bringing up the Son of God would be a piece of cake? But that isn’t the picture Luke gives us at all. The Jesus we read about in the second chapter of Luke isn’t an easy experience for any parents! He’s challenging, difficult to understand, rather precocious, a strange combination of submission and independence.
I think that we can read between the lines in this story and discover something about the kind of upbringing Joseph and Mary had given Jesus, and I think there are some good pointers here for us as well, whether we are parents or grandparents or godparents, or are just intentional about mentoring relationships with young Christians. Here are four things that I notice.
First, I notice how Mary and Joseph were passing on their faith traditions. The Christmas season is a time when we experience some of our most beloved faith traditions. Take the Advent Wreath, for instance. I didn’t grow up with the Advent Wreath myself; I discovered it when our family lived in Saskatchewan in the early 1980’s. We’ve been using it daily during Advent for over thirty years now; we light the candles each day and read a short reading from an Advent book. We also have a little Christmas story book that we used to read to our kids during the ten days before Christmas; I notice that at least two of them still read it, even though they’ve long since stopped being kids!
Another faith tradition, of course, is churchgoing. I have no memory of the first time I was ever taken to church; I’m sure it was long before I could walk. My parents took me every Sunday, and I’m sure that when my brother and I were little we made some noise and were hard to handle. But my parents persevered, even when my Dad was ordained as a priest which meant that my Mum had to look after us in the pews alone.
We see in today’s passage that Joseph and Mary were observant Jews who were in the habit of going to Jerusalem each year for the Passover celebrations; verse 42 says ‘And when (Jesus) was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival’. There is no hint in this story that this is the first time Jesus has accompanied them. No, he had grown up with these traditions and celebrations; they had been an integral part of his life, and he went on to make them his own as an adult.
I’ve sometimes heard parents say “I want to give the kids the right to make up their own minds about religion, so I don’t want to force them to do things they don’t want to do”. I think this makes perfect sense when the kids become older teenagers. But to act this way with little children goes against our Anglican understanding of infant baptism. When parents bring their children for baptism they make a commitment to raise disciples for Jesus. That involves introducing them to a living relationship with God and helping them to grow in it day by day. Yes, one day they will certainly make up their own mind about whether or not they want to continue on this path, but until that day comes, they should be included in the faith traditions of the family, and of the wider Church. They should be given an opportunity to experience for themselves all the riches that the Christian faith has to offer. A lot of those riches can’t be seen from the sidelines; you have to get involved in the life of the Church to discover them for yourself.
So the first thing I notice is that Joseph and Mary were including Jesus in their faith traditions. The second thing I see is that they were passing on their love for the Scriptures.
I don’t remember the first time I heard the Christian story; like many of you, I grew up in an atmosphere that was permeated by the Bible. I remember one year when my Dad came home from seminary he brought a Children’s Story Bible for my brother and me. I loved looking at the pictures in that Bible, and I learned to enjoy reading it – even though some of it was in King James language! Later on, after I had committed my life to Christ as a young teenager, my parents introduced me to the Bible Reading Fellowship. In those days the notes weren’t called ‘New Daylight’ as they are today, but the principle was the same – a short daily passage of Scripture with an explanatory comment. Mum and Dad also bought me a copy of the ‘Living Bible’, an early paraphrase of the Scriptures that was really easy to read. In all of these ways they successfully instilled in me a love of the Scriptures which continues to this day.
I see this love of the Scriptures in the young Jesus. We read in verse 46 that ‘after three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions’. We can make a very good guess what those discussions were about: the Old Testament Scriptures, and how to apply their teaching to one’s daily life. This was the most common topic of discussion in Judaism at the time. This was the discussion that had occupied Jesus for three days while his parents were searching for him in the city.
Where did he get this burning desire to understand and live by the Scriptures? Not just from hearing it read (although he would have heard it regularly in the synagogues, and he would probably have had to memorise great chunks of it as part of his education). But I suspect that the thing that had the greatest impact on Jesus was seeing his parents struggling to live by God’s Word. In Matthew chapter one we find the young Joseph, expecting to be married to Mary, suddenly discovering that she is pregnant and agonising over what he should do. He wants to do what is right; he is guided by the Scriptures, but also by the voice of the angel in the dream telling him that something unusual is happening here. And Mary, when the angel brings her the news that she is to be the mother of the Messiah, replies “Let it be to me according to your Word” (Luke 1:38). She is willing to obey God at great personal cost.
Someone once said “You are the only Bible many of your friends will ever read”. That is even more true, I think, of our children; parents and grandparents are the first Bible their children read. It’s true in the Church too: the kids in our church will see us adults doing our best to live by the teaching of the Scriptures long before they learn to read the Bible for themselves. But if they see that we love the Scriptures, and are trying hard, day in and day out, to put them into practice, then the chances are good that one day they will want to read the Bible for themselves as well.
We’ve seen that Joseph and Mary were including Jesus in their faith traditions and that they were teaching him to love the scriptures. A third thing I notice in this passage is that Jesus had discovered a personal faith.
Most of you know that I have a story that is very precious to me of how my father helped me to discover a personal faith in Jesus. Of course, both my parents played a vital role in bringing me up in the Christian Faith, passing on the Christian story and so on. But when I was a young teenager it was my father who lent me Christian books, one of which succeeded in getting my attention with its story of a real God who did real things in people’s lives by the power of the Holy Spirit. And it was my father, one night in 1972, who challenged me to give my life to Jesus – an event which changed the course of my life. From that moment on, I was no longer merely practising my parents’ religion; I had begun to experience my own personal relationship with God through Jesus.
Whether we can tell a story of a decisive event, or of a more gradual process of awakening, it is essential for us that we go on from a merely institutional relationship with the church to a personal relationship with God. This is far and away the most important gift that we can pass on to children. And I would hazard a guess that a great deal of teenage rebellion against ‘church’ stems from the fact that parents are trying to pass on religious observances without helping the children to experience the living relationship with God that is at the heart of those observances.
It’s obvious that by the age of twelve Jesus was very conscious of this personal relationship with God. He says in verse 49 “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” – “I must be about my Father’s business” as some translations have it. This sense of a close relationship with God as his father is very striking. Obviously Jesus is unique in that he is the Son of God in a special sense, one that no one else can share. But in another sense we can share it. John’s Gospel says of him ‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God’ (John 1:12).
God longs for all of us to experience him as our loving father in a personal way. Without that, it is inevitable that children will eventually rebel against the external trappings of religion. But with that personal relationship, they will discover the heart of the Christian Faith. They will gain a desire to grow closer to God, to learn more and more about God, and to move on as followers of Jesus.
We’ve seen three pointers in this story so far: including children in our faith traditions, passing on a love of the Scriptures, and introducing them to a personal relationship with God. The last thing I want to point out to you in this story is Jesus’ growing sense of independence.
Our gospel reading tells us that,
‘When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their friends and relatives’ (Luke 2:43-44).
It’s hard to understand how Mary and Joseph could miss the absence of Jesus as they left Jerusalem on their return journey to Nazareth. William Barclay suggests one possibility. It might be that the women started out earlier than the men. Jesus was twelve, which meant that he had just been through his ‘Bar Mitzvah’ and become ‘a son of the law’. Up until then, he had probably accompanied his mother at worship and in religious celebrations. It might be that Joseph assumed Jesus would be with Mary, while Mary assumed he would be with Joseph. Or perhaps they were travelling in a large family group with lots of relatives, and they assumed he was with his cousins.
Whatever happened, somehow they managed to miss his absence. What is obvious is that it was not their practice to keep this twelve-year old so close that he could never wander off anywhere. Obviously they had begun to let him spread his wings a bit. They had let go of the need to control him all the time.
Here’s what I know: the more we help children to develop their own personal connection with God, the less we’ll have to police them about it, and the more we’ll be able to trust them with their own spiritual growth. And if they don’t have that personal connection with God, no amount of policing on our part can make up for it. Once again, the personal connection with God is the key to everything else.
Success at parenting – or grandparenting, or godparenting, or mentoring young disciples of Jesus – comes on the day we hear our kids say what Jesus says here – “I must be about my heavenly Father’s business” – and we know they really mean it! Then we’ll know we haven’t only passed on our faith traditions, but have also helped them find a personal connection with God for themselves.
Some of us here today are parents, some of us are grandparents, some of us are godparents. Some of us have no children of our own, but we share in the responsibility of the Christian Church to help the children among us grow to know and love God. So let us pray for God’s wisdom and strength as we do our best to pass on our faith traditions and our love for the Scriptures – as we live out our own personal commitment to Christ in the sight of the children – as we help them discover their own personal connection with the living God – and as we allow them the independence to discover ‘their Father’s business’ and to commit themselves to it for the rest of their lives.