View You Tube video of the sermon here.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.
The Sunday readings always present a challenge and an opportunity. Sometimes they’re very closely related, and you can easily see a theme emerging. Other times it’s harder to find a connection among them. So for a preacher, it’s easiest just to pick one reading (usually the Gospel) to focus on, which is what I, in the interests of efficiency, usually do.
But this morning I’d like to see how we might draw on all three of the readings to try to make sense of our current predicament.
The parable that Jesus tells provides the framework for the predicament: God has planted the world – our world, God’s creation – with good seeds, but somehow the fields are full of weeds.
This will not surprise any gardener, and it must have touched a nerve with his peasant audience. You plant a vegetable garden in carefully prepared soil, and before you know it, the weeds are outcompeting what you planted. Then it becomes a constant chore to dig up and eradicate the weeds before they take over the garden and you lose what you planted. If you’re careless and allow the weeds to grow they take from the soil valuable nutrients that your vegetables need, so any self-respecting gardener works hard to control the weeds.
But this is not how God’s garden works, according to Jesus. Instead, God lets the weeds grow, until the final harvest, when weed and wheat will be separated. As with many of Jesus’ parables, this must have left his listeners scratching their heads. It doesn’t seem to be good cultivation technique. In fact, it seems almost irresponsible.
But Jesus is addressing the world as it is. The world, our world, is a messy place, which all his listeners also understood. God created the world and everything in it, in beauty and goodness, but it seems to us to be filled with wickedness and sorrow. Paul acknowledges this in Romans: all of creation is in “bondage to decay” and is “groaning in labor pains,” waiting for God to redeem it.
We can relate. Disease, violence, bigotry and hatred, poverty and economic anxiety. The sufferings of our present time seem almost overwhelming, and the evils of the world seem to come from many sources – from the outright wickedness of some, from the indifference of others, from willful ignorance of yet others, and from our own failing to do what we know is right. We find ourselves uncertain what to do, and we are afraid.
But Paul counsels his followers not to fall back into slavery to fear. It seems to me that much of what makes me angry about the world today is people – all of us – acting out of fear. We fear disease and harm so we act selfishly. We fear the loss of our familiar ways so we refuse to adapt to necessary changes. We fear those who are different from us – by ethnic background, religion, politics, class, ability – so we attribute to them evil motives, when they, too, are acting out of fear of the unknown. And so fear causes all of us to spiral downward together into hopelessness and inaction.
Jesus has a different take on our situation. Don’t worry about the weeds and focus instead on the coming harvest, Jesus suggests. It is in hope that we are saved, Paul says. Hope IS our salvation. Not a blind hope that ignores the continual stream of bad news but a hope for the full revelation of God’s rule. A hope that even in an age of anxiety looks for signs that God is present and working among us.
Our ancestor Jacob spends much of his time in Genesis fleeing from one place to another out of fear of what may happen to him. At one point he finds himself in the middle of nowhere and has a visionary encounter with God. He receives a promise of God’s future blessing on him and his family, a promise of God’s presence and protection, a promise so expansive and without limit that it might have seemed absurd. But Jacob finds hope in it. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it,” he says in wonder. That’s a good mantra for us to repeat at this moment: Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.
If I pay attention to the signs of hope around me, I may just be able to perceive the reality of God’s kingdom. Even in the midst of a life-crushing pandemic.
I live in a suburban neighborhood where we don’t really know our neighbors. But that has changed since the shutdowns of the last several months, as people are more at home and we’ve struck up conversations outside. On the Fourth of July something took place that we had never experienced before on our block, in our 30+ years here. We gathered in the street, from small children to old folks, pooled our fireworks and put on a display for the enjoyment of those sitting on lawn chairs on the sidewalk.
Not really a big deal, but I found in that evening of blazing light and explosive noise and laughter, and children screaming, and applause, a sign of the presence of God’s new community of life and peace and joy. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”
Hope, Paul says, is the assurance of things not seen. And currently we don’t see much in this world to make us confident that God is in charge, or that the groaning of all creation will soon end, or that we will all soon be able to join together to solve our mutual dilemmas.
But we, people of faith, are called to search out and find hope in the world, even when it seems outlandish. We are called to find it even in the smallest moments and in unlikely places, and to proclaim it to others. We are called to act as if we had confidence that God’s fields of wheat will soon come to maturity and be harvested, and that the bounty of God’s creation will be shared with everyone.
Genesis 1:1-2:4a [The Story of Creation]
Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18, 8:6-18, 9:8-13 [The Flood]
Genesis 22:1-18 [Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac]
Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 [Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea]
Isaiah 55:1-11 [Salvation offered freely to all]
Baruch 3:9-15, 3:32-4:4 or Proverbs 8:1-8, 19-21; 9:4b-6 [Learn wisdom and live]
Ezekiel 36:24-28 [A new heart and a new spirit]
Ezekiel 37:1-14 [The valley of dry bones]
Zephaniah 3:14-20 [The gathering of God’s people]
May God be with you this holy evening.
The Easter Vigil liturgy always begins in darkness. We are all now in a time of darkness, as a nation and as a world community. We know the darkness won’t last forever, but while it does, it’s hard for us to see the light and find our way.
I had an experience of total physical darkness many years ago, on an overnight school faculty retreat at Silver Falls State Park. Teachers were socializing in a common hall in the evening, and when I left the hall I was alone and without a flashlight. We were in the woods, it was a cloudy night, and as I walked out onto the road to go to my cabin I got to a point where the lights from the common hall were completely obscured, and I couldn’t see any lights on the cabins.
It’s a rare thing to be in total darkness outside. I had the eerie feeling that the night was
closing in on me – I could almost feel it. It was very disorienting. I stopped and thought about trying to turn around, but realized I couldn’t find my way back. I had no choice but to go forward. There were night sounds of the woods but no human sounds. I waited for a while, listening and hoping someone with a flashlight would come along. But I finally decided to feel my way along what I knew was the road (I could feel it underfoot).
Stretching my hands in front of me, I moved slowly ahead. After a time, I saw a faint glimmer from a light on one of the cabins ahead, and it was just enough for me to navigate forward with more confidence.
This is the night when the people of Israel began their escape from slavery in Egypt. I can
almost imagine how they felt that night, as Moses led them away from their homes in Egypt, away from their old lives, into the darkness, into the wilderness, with just the light of God to lead them. And I try to imagine what he might have been saying to them:
“We don’t know where we’re going. We don’t know how we’re going to get there. We don’t know what’s going to happen to us. But we know that we’re not going back. We won’t go back.
We can’t go back. And we know that the Lord has promised to guide us forward. So we’re going forward. And we know that wherever we’re going, it won’t be like the home we’ve left behind.
We pray it will be better. The way will surely be hard, but we will stay together, we won’t leave anyone behind, no matter how slow and weak they might be. And when we arrive at a new place, wherever it may be, we will find ourselves a new people.
That’s what I imagine Moses saying.
And I can imagine Jesus’ followers keeping vigil on the dark nights after his death and
burial. They have experienced an unexpected catastrophe. They have no idea what to do or where to go. They fear for their own lives. Even after Jesus’ appearance to them on Easter Day, and their experience of joy and hope, they still don’t know what to do.
According to Saint John, they go back to their lives as fishermen on the Sea of Galilee – until Jesus comes to them and gently reminds them that there’s no going back, no return to their old lives, they need to go forward to continue his work, God’s work, to care for God’s people. The way will be hard and the future uncertain, but God’s Spirit will guide them.
So, like the people of Israel, pursued by a dangerous enemy, and like Jesus’ followers,
stunned by a disaster they didn’t foresee, we, too, move forward, feeling our way along a dark path, trying to find the light that we know will guide us, trusting that the Lord is with us, but uncertain about where God is leading us.
It may be that in six months or a year, we will have gotten “back to normal,” as a church, as a city, as a nation, though I rather doubt it. But even so, I don’t think we will be the same. I don’t think there’s any real going back. I think we will find ourselves changed, in ways we never expected. I think we will find ourselves in a new place, thinking and acting in new ways.
Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the darkness of the Civil War, said this in an address to
Congress, as he prepared to move the nation forward in an entirely new direction, by abolishing slavery: “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present.
The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”
We are indeed beginning to rise – to think and act anew, both as people of faith and as
members of our communities. To find the way forward will not be easy, but we as a people have done this before. We trust that God’s light is with us. We know we need to stay together, not to leave anyone behind, especially the tired and the weak, to seek out and care for those in need.
We know to follow the light wherever it leads, to expect that the Lord is leading us through this dark wilderness to a new place, where we will be renewed as God’s people.
I’d like to close with a prayer from Iona Abbey, that appeared in our Lenten Cookbook:
May you be out of your depth –
As the deeps of the night sky
Contain but cannot explain God’s mystery.
May you be in the dark –
As the moon is eclipsed, but held safe,
With all that is, in the palm of God’s hand.
May you be lost for words –
As the Word is spoken
In the silence of the night,
In the beauty of God’s creation.
The loving blessing of God,
Healer, and Holy Spirit,
Be in us and around us tonight,
And all our nights and days.
I’ve been happily retired for a year and a half now, with no plans to go back to teaching, but somehow this September I ended up back in the classroom at my old school, for a three month substitute job. When the offer came up I thought a lot about it and decided in the end that I was called to do this. I knew just what was expected and knew the people I would be working with – plus I knew it had a clear end date.
The disciples whom Jesus called by the Sea of Galilee didn’t know any of those things: what they were being asked to do, how long it would last, or even what the mission was. So I try to imagine how they ended up accepting Jesus’ call.
Jesus was the new guy in town – he had come down from Nazareth, in the hill country, to the shores of Galilee. He didn’t know these guys, so why did he choose them? Did he look at them working on their boats and think, well, these look like hard-working fishermen, so they’d probably be good helpers? Or did he think – and I kind of like this idea – as they’re sitting around mending nets, these guys don’t look like they’re doing much, I’ve got a real job for them?
And why did these men – Peter and Andrew, James and John – decide to pick up and follow Jesus? They don’t know him. Maybe they’d heard there was a new wandering prophet in town. But when Jesus says, “I will make you fish for people,” what does that even mean?
In retrospect, now, the statement makes sense to us, because we know the whole story. But what could they have been thinking? As I imagine the scene, I picture one of them looking at the other, not saying anything. The other one looks back, maybe shrugs and grins. There’s an unspoken agreement, “Well, what the heck, there’s not a whole lot happening here, why not check it out?” And maybe one of them turns to a boy nearby and says, “Watch our nets for a while – we’ll be back.”
Notice what’s happened: they had no idea what they’re being called to do, or how they’re going to do it, or where they’re going to go, or even what the goal is.
Why do they do this? There must have been some sense of trust in Jesus – the way he looked, how he spoke, maybe what little they’d heard about him. And then they had one another. You know how it is when you’re with friends or family and someone suggests doing something, and you say, “Well, I’m in if you are.” Also, there’s the very human sense of curiosity and adventure, the desire to try new things.
I think this is a good example of how God’s call actually works. It would be nice to think that God’s call to us would be obvious, like the blast of a loudspeaker, “Attention! I’m talking to you.”
But that’s not how it works. God is always broadcasting to us – God is like a 24 hour radio network – but most of the time we’re not paying attention because we’re too busy, too preoccupied with immediate concerns. It’s only when we can create a little space in our lives that we can really tune in to what God is saying.
And God calls to us daily: sometimes about big, potentially life-changing things, but most often about daily concerns. Maybe it occurs to us one day that it might be good to get in touch with someone we haven’t seen for a while, and it turns out we make contact at a critical time.
But we often resist the call. When I was thinking about ordination, I thought to myself, “I’m not the right person for this, I don’t know that I have the right gifts, it’s not the right time for me.” I think these are all pretty common responses to God’s call. But God doesn’t really care if we’re prepared, or if we think we can do what’s asked.
In the end, after much pondering, I decided to answer the call. I trusted that God would show me the way, I had friends who supported and encouraged me, and finally I thought, “Well, why not?”
In our lives as Christians, and in our common life, we are often invited to the unexpected, called to do things or follow paths that we feel unprepared for, that we hadn’t planned on, that we don’t think we have the gifts for. God doesn’t care.
In the life of our parish, maybe someone has suggested you’d be good on Vestry, or someone has said that Altar Guild could use some help, or you have a nagging idea that it would be fun to try cooking for the Friday dinner. If we trust that God will guide us and that others will support us, even if we’re not sure how we’re going to do something, maybe it’s still worth a try. The same is true for our parish ministry as a whole. If God is truly calling us to something new, even something that seems beyond our abilities, then, well, “What the heck.”
I know that in my life, when I’ve been able to say “yes” to God’s call, trusting that God will guide me, trusting that others will be with me, and with an openness to new possibilities, I have been richly blessed.
If you’ve ever cooked a meal for 75 people in a cramped kitchen, you know it can be a
chaotic process – at least it is when I’m doing it. There’s always a scramble to get things
done, last minute snafus, confusion about what should happen next – yet somehow, in the end, it seems to come together. Perhaps that’s a miracle in itself, like the loaves and the fishes.
We don’t have evidence in the gospels that Jesus did any cooking, though he did
manage to organize a meal for 5000 souls – with leftovers for the next day. His instructions that day to his disciples were, “ You give them something to eat,” which surely induced a moment of panic among them.
He has given his followers today the same instructions, and the paramount importance
of those instructions is apparent in the fact that on Sunday morning a meal for everyone
present is our central act of worship.
Why are there so many references to Jesus eating and drinking with others in the
gospel? It’s central to his concept of God’s kingdom: God’s feast of good things is already
prepared, God wants everyone – and particularly those most in need – to share in it.
Gathering people of whatever sort together to share a meal with them was, for Jesus, not
just a sign of God’s Kingdom but making the Kingdom real and present , of experiencing
God’s presence here and now. It was a practice of healing and nurturing and community
formation, and it was a promise of love and joy and hope.
I’ve engaged in a number of different kinds of ministries in my life as a priest –
preaching, teaching, healing, visiting, etc. – but none has been more important to me than
preparing food for others to enjoy together.
I’m presiding at a meal when I celebrate the Eucharist, which is usually a well ordered
event. But preparing a meal, from planning to shopping to prepping, to working at a hot
stove, is inevitably a kind of juggling act with an uncertain outcome, as any cook will tell
you. So I guess it’s not that different from all the other ministries of the church.
The Friday dinners are a critical ministry at Grace. When Hale McMahon helped begin
these dinners, I suspect he was relying on the observation that if you prepare good food
and offer it to people, they will come and eat. But if you’ve been to a Friday dinner you
know that it’s not just about the food. It is making real God’s Kingdom in this city, in people sharing and serving one another, in acknowledging and honoring both the humanity and the divine image in each person present, satisfying our hunger for both sustenance and relationship with others. It is hard not to have a sense of joy in that experience.
I never discussed theology with Hale. I don’t think I needed to: his dedication to the
Friday dinner was theology in action. It told you what you needed to know about his
character, his commitment to the service of others, his radical welcoming of all to God’s
When I make it to the heavenly banquet, with the angels, and the elders, and people
from every tribe and nation feasting on fat things full of marrow and well aged wine, my
plan is to head back to the kitchen, because the kitchen is always where the action is and
where people are usually having the most fun. I suspect I will find Jesus there, popping in to see that everything is okay. “Do you need any more wine, maybe?” he’ll ask.
And I’m thinking that’s where I’ll find Hale, making sure everyone has the supplies they
need, offering to run out to get something last minute, checking that the banquet is running smoothly, that there’s plenty of food for everyone, and that everyone feels welcome.
For him, as for all of us, the Feast is only just beginning.
Well, it’s that time of year when we’re thinking about Back to School. That may not be
relevant to all of you, but I’m going to suggest that perhaps it should be.
After having retired from teaching a year ago, I find myself getting ready to go back to
the classroom once more. This will be the start of my 57th year in school, as either student or teacher.
I’ll be teaching high school Religion as an academic subject. I think there’s a strong
argument for the importance of studying religion – because of its central role in the world today as well as for the skills it can promote, like understanding different cultural perspectives.
But I think the ultimate purpose of studying religion – as is true for math or science or
English – is exploring the nature of reality and our own human nature.
From a Christian perspective, teaching and learning is a divine practice, because if God is the foundation of all reality, and if we humans are made in God’s image, then deepening our understanding of reality means coming closer to understanding the truth about God and about who we are in relationship to God. And this should be a joyful activity for all of us.
Education as divine practice is something that Jesus models throughout the Gospel, and we have a fine example in today’s lesson from Luke.
Consider the story: Jesus frees a woman from a crippling infirmity on the Sabbath. Some of the people present, based on their concept of honoring the Sabbath prohibition against work, object to this. Jesus responds to them by asking them to reflect on their own experience, and the crowd, having done this, seems to come to a new understanding. The story ends in the people rejoicing.
The story’s message seems to focus on two things: freedom and transformation. For the
woman, her new freedom and transformation are physically obvious. But the crowd is also freed – from an inadequate understanding of the Sabbath and of what God wants from them. They are also transformed, because they gain new insights, through Jesus’
questioning, into God’s truth – and this becomes a joyful experience.
I occasionally encounter former students of mine, now in their twenties or thirties, and as we talk they sometimes say that they don’t remember anything of what they have learned in my class. But as I listen to them talk about the meaningful work they do now, how they serve others, how committed they are to social concerns, the loving relationships they are in, I think – that’s okay. They have grown since high school, they have been freed from some of their narrow-mindedness and teenage anxiety, they are growing into the kind of mature and thoughtful people we need. If my teaching has contributed even the tiniest bit to that transformation, then I don’t really care if they can’t remember the significance of the 14th Amendment, or why the Council of Jerusalem was important in early Christianity.
Sometimes, as a teacher, you do get to see a moment when “the light comes on,” when a student struggling with a difficult concept – whether how to solve a quadratic equation or how to use the preterite tense in Spanish or whatever – they suddenly get it. It’s a joyful moment for both student and teacher. They’ve gained a little deeper understanding of the nature of reality, and they may have gained self-understanding as well.
True learning is not about repetitive drills, studying for tests or endless assessments.
None of these produces true joy. True learning is about pursuing a goal of what the Greeks called “Sophia” or “wisdom,” which is a deep understanding that comes from reflecting on everything we’ve learned and experienced, which pulls together and integrates everything, which enables us to become the people that God has called us to be. And that is deeply joyful.
And this is a goal for all of us, whether in school or not.
So my hope is for this coming year to be a year of deepened understanding and joyful
learning – not just for kids in school but for all of us, that we may be on the path to Sophia, or wisdom, as a way to draw closer to God and to the image of God that lies in each of us.
What’s the deal with Judas Iscariot? I’ve been thinking a lot about Judas this week.
He’s a major player in the Holy Week drama, but we usually hear little about him, except to condemn him for his selling out Jesus to the Jewish and Roman authorities.
And we know little about why he did that. The gospels can’t agree on his motive:
Mark says nothing about motive, Matthew says he did it for money, and John’s gospel
says he was induced by Satan.
Over time there’s been speculation that he might have been sympathetic to the
Jewish radicals who wanted to attack Rome with violence and was therefore frustrated when Jesus didn’t choose that path. But we just don’t know. Nor do we know why afterwards, he apparently regretted what he had done.
But here’s another question: If Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray him, as
John’s gospel suggests, why didn’t he try to stop him, or why didn’t he try to find a
different place to hide? John says it’s because it was all part of God’s plan but
that doesn’t really explain much.
Here’s how I’ve come to think of it: I believe that in creating humans in God’s image,
God has given us the great gift of freedom of choice, of being able to know what the
right path is, and being free to choose it or not. It’s the freedom that Adam and Eve
exercise in the Garden, and it’s the same freedom that all the actors in the Holy Week
It is a measure of God’s love and respect for us that God invites us to follow God,
tries to show us the way but does not force us to follow. God wants our actions to be
freely chosen, based on our conscience. In allowing Judas to do what he does, Jesus
respects the human dignity even of someone who he knows means him harm.
The last days of Jesus are a swirl of different people making different choices in
response to him: the crowd in Jerusalem, which acclaims him on Sunday and cries for
his execution on Friday; his disciples, who abandon him and later realize that all is not
lost; his women followers, who are faithful throughout; the Jewish leaders, divided over
how best to deal with him; and Pilate, who releases one condemned prisoner and
We might see Jesus as strangely passive in this drama, in allowing people to act
against him, but we might also see him as according everyone the chance to choose
their own path, and trusting that God will see it right in the end.
The human heart is mysterious: In Holy Week we observe faith and fear, hope and
despair, hatred and love, life and death, and we know that these all part of our lives, too.
Jesus is not the master manipulator, forcing others to do his will. He is teacher and
model, inviting people to follow his path of love and sacrificial service to others.
Every year in Holy Week we have the opportunity to respond anew to that invitation to choose faith over fear, hope over despair, love over hate, and new life over death.
On this feast of the Epiphany that ends the Christmas season, we still have the manger scene up, a very traditional sort of tableau that combines the birth stories we have in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. it’s a powerful symbol of what the gospel writers are trying to tell us about the birth of this unique figure – not just in human existence but in the existence of the cosmos. So we have cosmic elements present in this scene – the stars, the angels – and all of it is focused on the adoration and worship of this baby. We have the shepherds and the wise men, representing the poor and the rich, we have Jews and gentiles – the wise men are foreigners from another country. And it’s not just humans who have come to adore, but the animals as well. So all of creation is gathered around this child to offer worship and homage. Powerful symbolism, but it raises some questions.
One of the things that’s interesting about the gospels is that there is a split in the four of them. Two of the gospels, Matthew and Luke, have a birth story, and the other two don’t. So why would that be?
I think one of the things that the gospel writers are wrestling with is the fact that on the one hand, even from the time of his birth Jesus is revealed to us as this unique, divine figure. But he’s not going to begin his ministry for another thirty years, well into adulthood. So what was he doing in those intervening thirty years? If he was self-aware as a divine figure really from the time of his birth and growing up, then why wasn’t he out there doing stuff?
Now Mark answers that question very simply, because for Mark, Jesus doesn’t realize his nature and his calling until his baptism. And it’s from the point of his baptism by John that there’s a flash of understanding. So presumably he’s been growing, he’s been learning, but it’s not until that point that he realizes that God has called him to a unique purpose. And in the meantime, presumably, he’s been living a fairly ordinary life. There are no stories in the gospels about those intervening years, which probably means nothing spectacular really happened.
Well, for some early Christians that was not a satisfactory understanding. So from pretty early on, we get some writings called “non-canonical,” meaning they didn’t end up in the official collection of New Testament books, for reasons that I think will be obvious in a minute. These are sometimes called the infancy gospels, and they have stories of Jesus as a child – with the assumption that as a child, he has the divine powers that he’s going to reveal later as an adult. For a couple of reasons these stories are problematic.
To use an analogy: one of my favorite superheros in the new superhero pantheon is Spider-Man. And Spider-Man, if you’re not familiar with the Spider-Man story, is a teenage boy who accidentally receives powers that are kind of spider-like, that allow him to go out and be a crusader for justice, etc. There have been a couple of iterations of Spider-Man in the movies, and the most recent one is really my favorite, because it reveals Spider-Man as just an ordinary kid who happens to have these super powers. But given that he’s a teenage boy, things don’t always work out in the best way. In trying to help people and save situations, he misjudges situations, he doesn’t realize what’s really happening, and he creates a lot of havoc. And people actually get ticked off at him.
Something similar happens in the infancy gospels. Because on the one hand there are wonderful stories of Jesus doing good as a young child. So for example there’s a story of a companion of his falling off a roof of a house and dying, and Jesus raises him back to life, and everyone thinks that’s fantastic. There’s a another story when he’s with a companion and the boy cuts his foot with an axe, and Jesus heals him instantly. Well, that’s really cool!
But there are other stories. He has a teacher who’s trying to teach him, and he’s really snarky with the teacher and tells him, “You don’t have anything to teach me. I know everything already.” Which presumably would be true – right? There’s a scene where he’s playing with some boys, and a boy bumps into him accidentally and Jesus gets ticked off and causes him to fall down dead. The boy’s parents are understandably upset, and they go to Jesus’ parents to complain, and Jesus causes the parents of the dead boy to go blind. And the villagers get really upset and go to Mary and Joseph to complain, and Jesus’ parents have the classic response, “There’s nothing we can do with him – he’s out of our control.”
Well, you get a sense of why these stories didn’t end up in the canonical gospels, yes? Because, really, teenage boys – forgive me, teenage boys – don’t always have the judgment and self-control to be able to make wise decisions. Wisdom is something that typically comes with age. (Doesn’t always come, but it’s supposed to.)
So you can see the challenge here: if Jesus really does have these miraculous divine powers as a child, what kind of man would he become? We kind of have a choice: do we want a Jesus, can we identify with a Jesus, who even as a child is aware that he is really very different from everyone else, because he has these miraculous, divine powers. Or do we want a Jesus whose understanding of his mission and of his powers is something that develops gradually over time, and which he finally comes to realize in adulthood.
There’s only one story of Jesus not as an infant and not as an adult. It’s in Luke when Jesus goes to visit the temple at about age twelve, when a Jewish male would become an adult in the congregation. And what Luke says after that scene is that “Jesus grew in stature and wisdom, and in favor with God and people.” I think that’s a nice summary of what we might presume Jesus’ life was like between his birth and his beginning his ministry.
Now for Paul, the idea that Jesus is just a man is really critical. Paul makes a point to call Jesus “born of a woman.” It’s really important to Paul that Jesus is a man, not a god descended to earth, which would be a typical thing in Greek and Roman mythology. But a man, just a man. Paul talks in Philippians about Jesus emptying himself. Yes, he’s the son of God and yet he doesn’t claim that title. Instead he empties himself to experience the fullness of what it means to be human. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, who uses the language of sacrifice in the temple to talk about Jesus’ mission, says Jesus is a high priest who can sympathize with human weakness because he has experienced human weakness. And that for Paul, and I think for the gospel writers as well, is really critical to understanding who Jesus is. That Jesus is able to redeem our humanity because he has fully experienced our humanity. In poverty, in weakness, in obscurity, in all of the ordinariness of daily life. For years and for years and for years. One of the early Christian writers, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, in a famous phrase wrote, in talking about Jesus’s humanity, “What has not been assumed has not been redeemed.” And the word “assumed” meaning here, that unless Jesus takes on true humanity then he cannot redeem our humanity.
So to go back to the Matthew story and the manger scene, and this moment of glory and adoration. Immediately after this scene Matthew wants to emphasize again that Jesus is born as a very vulnerable child into a dangerous and violent world. At the time of his birth under King Herod he is threatened by violence, and he and his parents have to escape and become refugees and go to Egypt and hide, and when they are finally able to return to their homeland they have to go to an obscure village. It’s an acknowledgement that Jesus is the Son of God and yet he is living the life of a human being like the rest of us. I think the Jesus I can identify with is the Jesus who has experienced all of human weakness, all of human poverty and suffering. Who has experienced life in its joy and in its sorrow, in its triumph and its tragedy – and who can therefore redeem me and all human beings.