Note to self: The Sunday after Christmas is one of those times when people come to church more for the singing and less for the sermon. Have some words to share, but not too many. Have a point, but don’t belabor it. Say it, then step down and let the music do what only it can do – lift our hearts, take us beyond ourselves, unite us with the angels, so to speak.
Time is a funny thing. And not just in reference to the length of sermons on certain Sundays. One minute you’re holding a baby, next minute you’re watching them walk across the floor, walk out the door for school, across the stage for graduation, down the aisle. I don’t really know about that yet, but it seems to be the consensus out there. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it. Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem because there was no room for him in the inn, but already he’s 12 years old, getting ready for his bar mitzvah, already showing signs of separation from parental authority, puberty. Goodness.
Several weeks ago before a committee meeting several of us were having some pre-meeting small talk and the issue of the passage of time came up. A couple theories were proposed. Ron Headings said he thought that time is drawn out in the mind when one is learning new things. So children experience time slower as their brain adapts to new patterns, new thoughts, new activities. If you’re living in a routine for long enough you travel through time faster as your brain basically already knows what’s going to happen. The key to life: keep learning new things. Carol Lehman then brought up the theory that I’d also heard before. As you get older, each day or year is a smaller percentage of your life and thus goes by faster. To a one year old, one more year is like doubling their life. To a fifty year old, one year is just another fast trip around the sun, a smaller sliver of life than each year before and thus a faster orbit. This theory makes sense to me, but I hope Ron’s idea is more true. It gives one a little more feeling of control over how fast time seems to go rather than the inevitable acceleration that comes with aging.
Luke’s story goes quickly here, but he’s the only gospel writer who even manages to mention Jesus’ adolescence. If it wouldn’t be for this story of the boy Jesus in the temple we’d go from cradle to 30 years old in a heart beat. Mark and John don’t even mention the cradle part. It leaves a lot of room for the imagination about what was happening all those years. Carpentry internship with step-dad Joseph? Torah studies by candlelight after a hard day’s work? Who knows? Pretty unlikely they had any Torah scrolls in the house, actually.
We do get a little fuller picture of the boyhood of Samuel. Samuel’s mother was barren and makes a deal with God that if God give her a son, she’ll give God a priest. Hannah gets pregnant by her husband Elkanah and lets rip a poetic song that sounds a whole lot like a warm up to Mary’s Magnificat. “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God…The Lord raises up the poor from the dust; God lifts up the needy from the ash heap.” After giving birth to Samuel, Hannah must have longed for time to stand still. Just a few short years nursing her son and then he’s off to live at the temple to be brought up by the priests. The book of 1 Samuel says, “Samuel was ministering before the Lord, a boy wearing a linen ephod. His mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year, when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice….Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.” The passing of each year was probably measured for Hannah as a matter of inches. This year’s robe she is sewing a few inches bigger than the one before.
The empty spaces of the four gospel narratives of Jesus’ childhood and young adulthood were tempting for other writers. There’s a second century document called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas that has some interesting stories about the boy Jesus. As a five year old he turns clay into birds, but he gets in trouble because his does it on the Sabbath. He gets mad at a boy for bumping him on the shoulder and so curses him, but later heals him. He brings a boy back to life who has fallen off of a roof and then has the boy explain to people that Jesus had not pushed him off of the roof to cause the fall. There’s also a time when a teacher named Zacchaeus wants to teach Jesus. Joseph asks the teacher to watch out because only God can keep this kid under control. Then the story goes like this: “4 As Jesus heard Joseph saying this, he laughed and said to Zacchaeus, “Really, teacher, what my father has said to you is true. 5 I am the Lord of this people and am here in your presence and have been born among you and am with you. 6 I know where you are from and how many years there will be in your lives. I am telling you the truth, teacher, when you were born, I existed.
9 Then, the Jews who were present and heard Jesus were amazed and said, “What a strange and remarkable event. The child is only five years old and already he says such things. For we never heard anyone who speaks words like this child does.”
14 So Joseph took him by the hand and led him into the classroom. 15 And the teacher wrote the alphabet for him and began to practice it many times, but the child said nothing and did not answer him for a long time. 16 Becoming outraged, the teacher hit him on the head. After enduring this stoically, the child said to him, “I am teaching you more than being taught by you because I know the letters you are teaching me and your judgment is great. These things are to you like a copper pitcher or a clashing cymbal which do not offer glory or wisdom through sound. 17 Nobody understands the power of my wisdom.” 18 Then, when his rage was finished, he said the alphabet from alpha to omega very quickly.
19 Looking the teacher in the face, he told him, “Since you do not know the nature of the alpha, how are going to teach me the beta? 20 Hypocrite, if you know, first teach me the alpha then I will believe what you say about the beta.” 21 Then, he began to tell the teacher about the first letter. And the teacher was not strong enough to say anything.”
Luke echoes Samuel in more ways that just having Hannah play the prelude for Mary’s Magnificat. The boy Samuel grew “both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.” After the incident in the temple with the elders, we hear that Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”
I guess increasing in years is pretty automatic for all of us. Increasing in wisdom takes hard work. Apparently for Jesus, growing in wisdom is connected with the picture we’re given here of Jesus in the temple, “sitting with the teachers, listening to them, and asking them questions.” It’s good to see our youth asking so many questions as they keep studying scripture and learning about the life of faith. It’s a good sign. How did the infant Jesus in the manger become the preacher from Galilee? The only picture in any book of the Bible we’re given to fill in the gap is this one of the questioning, listening, adolescent.
Mary retrieved her son from the temple and heard about what he had been doing and learning there, and they headed back home to Nazareth. Jesus grows in wisdom and divine and human favor, and his mother pondered and treasured all these things in her heart.
With the Thomas infancy gospel it’s kind of wild reading some of these stories about Jesus that didn’t make it into the Bible. It makes me realize how hungry I am to know more about his life. But it’s a pretty bizarre picture of Jesus. This Jesus has no need to “increase in wisdom and in years and divine and human favor.” He’s already got it all figured out as a five year old. Greek scholar. Although from the looks of it, he’s not gaining much human favor with that attitude.
It looks like another of those funny things that happens with time. A century after his life, once the stories about him have circulated, beliefs about him and his relationship with God have started to be formulated, people are already re-imagining the past in a way that fulfills their particular needs in the present. The wise 30+ year old person of Jesus gets encased in the body of a five year old. The Greek language of the writer becomes the language that Jesus studied and spoke, rather than Jesus’ native Aramaic. Centuries later, Jesus is a blond haired and blue eyed savior straight out of Europe casting a strong vote for colonial expansion and then the forward march of the free market. Goodness. Time does wonders.
Now it’s the end of a year, the end of the first decade of this millennium, and we’re drawn toward looking back over what’s gone well, what’s gone wrong, what we could have done differently, how unexpected events shifted the course of our lives and our nation. We ponder. We reflect. We treasure in our hearts the gifts of the year and the decade. We acknowledge the unfolding of time and we recognize ourselves as responsible agents within time.
We have little control over the passage of time, but we do seek to keep growing in wisdom. We try and interpret the past in a responsible way, and not a way that only confirms what we already think we know. We hold hope for the future. And we remember those mysterious words that Jesus would later say so often during his adult ministry. The kingdom of God is now. This present moment is the place where we are invited to meet God and to make God’s ways a reality. So we pray Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. Open wide for us this present moment and let us embrace it for all its glory and wonder and majesty. We treasure these things, each moment, in our hearts. This moment we can join with the heavens and sun and moon and mountains and hills in their eternal song of praise.
And that means it’s time to stop talking and start singing.