By Pastor Mack Owings
Scripture: Luke 2: 41-52
Today I’m gonna talk about something near and dear to my heart, children and youth. That’s probably not surprising seeing as I’m the pastor of youth and families. I was in college when I began volunteering with a youth group and absolutely loved it. At first I thought it would be easy peasy, just show up and play some games with them, then talk about the Bible lesson for the day. However, I soon realized that youth ministry was a lot more than just games and Bible lessons. As students started to open up to me, I heard a lot of things about their lives that made me sad. Many of these students, some of them only in 6th or 7th grade, had a lot of difficult things going on in their lives, at home and at school. Some of these things I never could have imagined, and it broke my heart. These students had complex lives and really big feelings, yet the adults in their lives often dismissed those feelings. My job was to listen and to support the students as best I could, just like the other volunteers. It was so cool to see the adults in the group become a big part of the students’ lives by showing up for them and building healthy mentor-mentee relationships.
A couple of years later I got an internship at a church working with the family ministries pastor, and it was an incredible experience. However, the first Sunday I assisted with Kids’ Church, I witnessed a teaching style that was less than desirable. After singing and dancing to old Vacation Bible School songs, the volunteer teacher had each student grab a carpet square to sit on during the lesson. Now one boy, probably 6 or 7 years old, kept looking around during the lesson, and THREE TIMES the teacher stopped her lesson to tell him to sit still. Each time he would grow red in the face, and look at the ground while whispering a “sorry ma’am.” I was totally shocked by this because the student wasn’t being a distraction, he was just looking around and fidgeting a little. It seemed like no matter what he did, the teacher said he was misbehaving and she wouldn’t listen to him. Fortunately, all of the other volunteer teachers were not like this, and treated the students with great respect. They recognized that they had just as much to learn from the students as they had to teach them. And that’s one thing that I hope we can all learn today.
In our scripture, we have a 12 year old Jesus visiting Jerusalem with his family and community, as they did every year for Passover. His family making the trip every year suggests that his household was devoutly religious, and Jesus was likely learning about God and the Torah from Joseph. Now to put Jesus’ age into perspective, 12 year olds in our country today are in 6th or 7th grade. But for Jesus, being 12 years old meant that this was his last Passover before he turned 13 and became a man. I want to put emphasis on this fact. God sent Jesus as an infant to earth, not as a fully grown adult. Jesus grew up as a pretty normal child with the rest of his peers. I’m sure he got into trouble occasionally and maybe he talked too much in Bible class. He probably got yelled at on occasion by a teacher or other adult for misbehaving. Because to the adults in his community, he was just another kid, and one born out of wedlock. They either didn’t know about his holy conception, or they didn’t believe it. I can imagine a young Jesus telling his teachers that he was the son of God, and the teachers either laughing and saying “yes of course, we all are,” or getting angry and telling him that was blasphemous. His statements would have been discounted and his feelings hurt. He would have felt stupid, and maybe begin to doubt his parents’ story. And this is something that often happens to children. Jesus growing up on earth and living as a child, means that he has experienced many of the things that we’ve experienced as children. And God made that decision to send Jesus as a child on purpose. In fact, Jesus spent more time on earth as a child and adolescent than as a fully grown adult. God cares about the experiences of children and sent Jesus as a child so as to better understand those experiences.
So Jesus is in Jerusalem at the end of the trip, and instead of joining the community on their trip home, he makes his way to the Temple to talk with the local rabbis. He was interested in something, and so he went and did it, without permission. Our text says that Mary and Joseph kept traveling and looking for him for an entire day before heading back to Jerusalem. We may think of them as bad parents, but they also trusted the community they were traveling with to keep an eye on Jesus and the rest of their children, as they helped watch others. Maybe Jesus said he was with a friend, or maybe Mary and Joseph saw him walking with friends and assumed he would begin traveling with them as he had before. There are a lot of scenarios and we just don’t know. But we do know that Jesus did something he wasn’t supposed to; he misbehaved.
Mary and Joseph then look for him for three days before they find him in the Temple. Here again, we can wonder why it took them so long to check the Temple, but we can never know for sure. They were clearly worried that their eldest child was missing and they were in a panic. They would have checked all the inns and asked if anyone had seen him, but for some reason they don’t think to check the Temple. Maybe after 12 years of Jesus growing up with no visits from angels, they were thinking that Jesus would turn out to be a regular kid not called to serve God. No matter the reason, when they finally find him, Mary yells at him the equivalent of, “Where were you?? We were so worried about you!” To which he responds probably a little snarkily, like any preteen would, “Why were you looking? Where else would I be besides the Temple, my Father’s house?” And while we know what Jesus meant, Mary and Joseph did not. They couldn’t understand why he would run off and go to the Temple. But then Jesus decides to return home with them and is obedient, but I imagine it was after a timeout and a stern talking to. Maybe he was even grounded for weeks after they got home and couldn’t hang out with friends. Here again, Jesus is experiencing what many children go through, because it’s important to God that God understands what it’s like to be a child.
Now I wanna go back to what Jesus was doing in the Temple. For three days he busied himself with sitting with the teachers and learning. It doesn’t say he was correcting them and acting superior, but listening and asking questions. And everyone who heard him was amazed by how smart he was. We could chalk this up to him being the son of God, so of course he had wisdom beyond his years. But I want us to take a look at verse 40 and 52. Before this story of Jesus in the Temple, it says he was filled with wisdom. And then afterward in verse 52, it says that Jesus continued to grow in wisdom. So while 12 year old Jesus had wisdom, his learning wasn’t complete. He was still maturing and gaining wisdom, as every human does, at every age. I don’t think that Jesus’ words in the Temple should have shocked the teachers so much. I know some 12 year olds who are VERY smart. They can program computers and speak three languages and read at a college level. I can only do one of those things, and I have a Master’s degree.
Children have a lot to teach us, we only need to listen to them and ask them questions, like Jesus did of the teachers. Jesus’ life is often used as an example for how we are to act. And while we shouldn’t run off without telling people where we’re going, we should sit down, ask questions, and listen, like Jesus did. Earlier I talked about a student who was always getting in trouble for “moving too much,” because the teacher couldn’t believe that he could pay attention to the lesson while also looking around and fidgeting. But that’s not necessarily true. For one thing, not everyone has the same learning style. And two, recent studies have shown that fidgeting can increase brain function and help us to focus better and pay more attention. Because of this, more and more companies are providing various ways for employees to keep their hands busy during meetings, like Play-Doh, pencils and paper for doodling, and newer gadgets like fidget cubes. What we can learn from this, is that children sometimes have innate wisdom that we can learn from.
Children matter and they have a lot to give to our community. They’ll know when you treat them as fully human and when you talk down to them. At one church I used to work at, I had a mother come up to me and share what two of her girls had said about me. These two girls, ages 6 and 9, said that they liked me because they could tell that when they spoke, I listened. And then when I talked to them, I talked to them like I talked to adults. I didn’t talk down to them like most other adults did. And it made them feel like they mattered.
So what does all this mean for us as a community? What are we to do with this information? Perhaps the most important thing for us to do is be in community and relationship with children and youth. Only then do we have the opportunity to listen to them and support them. Even one more trusted and supportive adult in a youth’s life can make all the difference. They aren’t looking for more friends, they have those. They are looking for adults who care about them. And it’s okay if you don’t like kids or don’t have a lot of time in your life to volunteer. You can still make a difference by supporting those who do work directly with children and youth, here at Trinity and at other organizations in the community. So don’t discount a child’s experience and wisdom. Sit down, ask questions, listen, and be amazed. AMEN.
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