The Gospels are not history books. They are literary forms. So, we don’t really know what Jesus’ youth was like. We just have this one passage that foreshortens the time between Jesus’ birth and when he appeared on the social scene in Jerusalem as a 30-year-old fiery prophet.
Our passage is full of symbols that anticipate the themes that will make us his message and his death rather like the paintings of the Renaissance of the Madonna and child. In one of my favorites, Leonardo Da Vinci, has a beautiful portrait of a young woman and her infant playing on her lap. Mary is so full of the warm, humane love that Mother’s the world over beam at the miracle child they hold in their lap.
The baby Jesus is playfully exploring the world, shrouded in the warm comfort of his Mother’s caress. In his hand he holds a spindle, one of the most ordinary household items of a typical Italian home in the 1500’s that women used to spin wool to make clothes for their children.
The baby Jesus has turned the spindle in just the right direction so that the discerning eye of the beholder of this painting can recognize the shape of the cross in this ordinary device the baby is playing with.
The perceptive will see the arc of tragedy woven into the life of this child in a way that the Madonna, nor the child, could possibly anticipate. Looking back, our lives are like that aren’t they? It is almost like you could have seen this coming if only you could see.
The Gospels tell us all we need to know about how Jesus’ youth foreshadows his life and work in one simple story.
His parents were devout. They go to Jerusalem every year for the Passover. Not everyone did. So, Jesus comes from a religious home.
And he was a pretty ordinary boy. His parents make a 120 mile journey and half the time they can’t find Jesus because he is running ahead or lagging behind. My grandchildren live with us this year, 6 of them. I wake up most mornings and watch my daughter corral 4 boys and 2 girls to eat breakfast, brush their teeth, get dressed, pack their lunch, comb their hair and get out to the house.
Most every morning, one of my grandson’s is beating the fire out of his brother and he is shrieking for justice. Sometimes the adults respond, sometimes not. You cajole, you shush, you threaten, you push them in the right direction. And finally, you just have to start the car and move. My favorite image of this cacophony is seeing the baby, about 2 years of age, running after the car that has driven 20 yards down the road before anyone realizes that he is missing.
But who hasn’t had a maddening teenager that runs ahead on the platform and jumps on the subway before you are even sure you can actually make it onto the C Train with the younger kids? You’d like to brain them one.
Having grandchildren again, I forget just how much of your time is spent trying to get these people to follow some rules, the boys especially. I think it is one of the unspoken reasons that sports are so popular these days. It gives boy structure and it seems to be one of the very few things that motivate them to actually follow through.
Jesus youth was ordinary, rough housing. He was not where he was supposed to be. And here is the thing, for the discerning eye- those with a transcendent perspective. He isn’t going to be where you would expect him to show up. He will be someone that is out of the box. We admire this quality…. In other people’s kids.
Like the New Yorker cartoon with a guy talking to his new kitten who is standing in a brand new litter box. The guy says to the cat, “Never, never, never think outside the box.”
Jesus isn’t where he is supposed to be. And he probably never will be.
His parents come looking for him, irate, ready to read him the riot act on safety in the midst of large crowds and large cities. And they find him in the Temple, studying. He is precocious.
And he says something that a teenager would never say, “Don’t you know that this is where I need to be?” In God’s house. But looking back, and knowing what we will later learn, Jesus will strive his whole life to embody God’s will in his life and not really worry about tradition, the rules of religion, or deference to unjust political power. He will be way more daring than most of us would ever consider being.
But you know there is something profound about this quality of his life because it is a nagging profound question you pose for yourself, where do you need to be?
Mandy Simmons stood had just finished up packing the car in front of her in-law’s vacation home in Vermont. She went for a jog as her husband socialized with his siblings and her kids were idling their time with the cousins in front of video games.
Images flashed through her mind of the past few days, the absence of her sister-in-law now that she was proceeding with a divorce, how much she missed her companionship and the furtive asides that they could share about the eccentricities of the family that they had both married into.
Her father-in-law was ailing and this was the first year that her Mother-in-Law became something of a dominating presence as a result, setting an agenda without her husbands moderating influence and his warm humor.
Her husband had been off with his siblings for the last couple days, having a great time, to be sure, but also cavorting around the retreat house he grew up in, reliving the past glories and indiscretions of his youth, a kind of older version of her three teenage children.
She didn’t like the way that her children became more materialistic in the presence of their cousins, all of them comparing the relative perq’s of their lives in casual conversations that encouraged everyone to brag about who had more like they had better lives as a result. They just weren’t focused on things that mattered.
She stood outside this beautiful, classic home, snow adrift like a post card around the frozen Maple trees, looking into the window of this place that she had seen in spring, fall and winter over so many years of her life.
The car was packed up with all the special things she had brought to make the season so special and she was so good at doing all those little things that give reunions that flair. She was watching her breath in the cold morning air, feeling a little light headed but refreshed like the cold had cleared her mind.
She was thinking about the role she played even at work, moderating difficult ego’s in a difficult setting, working behind the scenes to fend off potential troubles, figuring out a compromise before most people were able to see what it should be, following through and worrying about so much behind the scenes that she never shared with other people.
It was exhausting, and then to do it again during the holidays. For a moment, she found herself zooming out. It was like she could see the roles that she played. But behind those roles there was her actual self. She was thinking to herself about how much more there was to her than the roles that other people saw her playing and she worried that these roles were consuming so much of her that it was truncating who she really was, what she could actually become if she didn’t have to spend so much time doing well what other people thought she was supposed to do.
And for a moment, right out of the blue, she was filled with an aching loneliness. In the midst of all this family, all these people, the spiritual lens on her life zoomed out fast enough that she felt a little physical vertigo. She was awash in a sadness that seemed to well up from somewhere really deep and it felt for a minute like it just might consume her completely.
She reached for her heart to check her pulse and consciously tried to focus on feeling her feet on the ground again, waiting for this wave to pass. She looked out, wiped her eyes, like she was talking to her Guardian Angel, like she was talking to God, she said out loud, “I’m not doing this anymore.”
Resolved. I’ve been existing on fulfilling what I’m supposed to do and I’m good at it. And it is not enough. Surrounded by all this stuff that I get for following fulfilling my roles so well, I’m spiritually starving and I’m miserable even though I have more than plenty. I can’t keep going this way. It is not meaningful enough. I know there is more to me.
You have a moment like that? God is giving you permission to leave behind following the script of what you are supposed to do. You learned the rules. You are responsible, so responsible you’ve been living other people’s expectations of you, what other people need from you. Nothing wrong with any of it, but it is not where you need to be is it?
Today, we have slips of paper for you to write down some things you just need to burn up from last year. Sometimes we aren’t even quite sure where we are actually headed next, but what we know is we need to burn up some stuff from the past, cut the bridge from what we have been doing, and move on.
You know what your personal stuff is in all likelihood. And while we are at it, how about a few social things that we could burn up as well because we sure need to get past some of the worst headlines from last year.
Like the shooting at Stoneman Douglass High School in Parkland Florida that left 17 students dead or the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh that left 11 dead. There were 36 school shootings last year. Over 40,000 people in the US died from gun violence last year, about the same number of people that died from car accidents, simply an astonishing number- and unacceptable. We could burn that up.
I wish we could leave behind all the chemical weapons attacks like the one in Ghouta province in Syria last year.
And close to my family, as it is close to so many, I wish we could burn up opioid overdoses in our country. The scourge that was up by 9.6% in 2018 over 2017 took the lives of 47,000 of our neighbors and friends. So painful and unnecessary. Let’s burn that up and let it go.
It seems like our generation is finally ready to burn up the ways of relating between the men and women that led to the widespread phenomenon of the “MeToo” movement and the ‘walk of shame’ that exposed so many men in power behaving badly. Burn that up too.
And we are slowly awakening to the need to get beyond Climate Weirding that gave us Hurricane’s Florence and Michael at an added cost of 17 billion dollars in damage and the fires in Southern California that are presently estimated to cost us 7.5-10 billion dollars.
We had floods of similar levels of destruction in Japan, Argentina, India, the Philippines, and China.
And we had droughts of similar magnitude in Europe, South Africa, and Australia. I’d like to burn all that up and I bet you would too.
And may you be inspired at the beginning of a new year to find the path towards a genuine meaning. May you find where you really need to be. Where your conscience is calling you to be. What you know you need to be doing to energize your Spirit and live more deeply. What God wants you to become.
Right now, that may just be an unchartered intuition that you can’t verbalize quite yet. It is usually like that.
But we are blessed to live in a world where hopeful change is happening all around us, pointing us in the higher direction towards the more noble parts of our souls. Maybe we can just name these things and release them up to God.
I think of the hopeful things that happened in 2018:
We started using drones to deliver blood and medicine to rural Rwanda using the most simple text messaging system, connecting the 1st world to one of the poorest regions of the 3rd world.
The Saltwater Brewery that started making 6 pack rings, not out of plastic that ends up in the ocean as a threat to fish, but out of material that turtles can eat.
Or the French this year who became the first country to ban Supermarkets from throwing out left over food; from now on they have to have a plan to donate it to the poor.
Or how about the 1.5 million volunteers in India that planted 66 million trees in 12 hours to set a world record in ecological restoration. How inspired was that?
Our world did see improvement in a number of ways that we should be grateful for because people are starting to do things better and that is mostly what we see rather than heroic individual lifts.
Breast cancer deaths fell 39% because we are doing better research and making substantial progress in developing cures.
Smoking is at the lowest percentage worldwide ever.
Literacy is at an all time high worldwide.
The poverty rate continues to fall for the poorest poor in our world at a faster rate than any time in human history.
The honey bee population is rising, particularly in Europe where France became the first country to ban all 5 of the pesticides that were known killers of bees. We can do that too and even more effectively.
And who can not give thanks for the photos from the House of Representatives this week. Two Native-American Congressman elected, both women, Sharice Davids of Kansas and Deb Haaland of New Mexico took the oath of office for the first time in U.S. History. About time, but still so inspiring because we are becoming more diverse.
Just looking at the diversity that is growing and becoming more like the rich diversity of our country, you feel like more and more of us are going to live in a world where we can each develop our potential. How much better a world we will be when we all live free, expressing what we have inside of us in a way that other people can celebrate.
It is good. And not just out there. You too. God has her hands on you. God is blessing you with hope, with love. You are beautiful. And you are going to make a difference.
That discontent you feel is because God is nudging you to stop just seeing what you are supposed to do. Find out what you really need to do and let all that passion that is welled up inside of you develop a creative outlet. Stop just existing and start really living abundantly. Amen.