It is amazing how time flies and these children grow up. It only seems like last week that we were celebrating his birth, and today Jesus is 12!
There is that line in one of the carols that we sing: It comes in 'O little town of Bethlehem', and includes the line, 'Christian children all must be mild, obedient, good as he'. As a child I refused to sing it – as a parent I sing it very loudly! I suspect that it was written by Cecil Frances Alexander after visiting her godchildren (she was married but didn't have children of her own) when they were running riot.
Jesus, even though he was the eternal Son of God, even though he already had an astonishing wisdom, was willing to be obedient to his parents.
Jesus knew that he was the Son of God.
In the passage we had read today, when his parents do finally find him and Mary says, 'Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you', Jesus replies, 'Why were you searching for me - didn't you know that I had to be in my Father's house?'
Mary says 'your father' meaning Joseph
Jesus says 'my Father' meaning God.
[Note: For anyone, let alone a 12 year old child, who probably had not even yet had his bar-mitzvah [that usually happened at age 13] to call God his Father, at this time, was quite exceptional.
Jews had called God 'Father' in their prayers, but it seems to be extremely rare. In 2 Sam 7:14 (echoed in Psalm 2:7) God states that David will be his Son and he will be his Father; in Jeremiah 3:4, the people are calling God 'Father', but God challenges them and says it is just talk; In Isaiah 63:16 and 64:8 the prophet proclaims, 'You, LORD, are our Father'. There may be an additional reference in Malachi 2:10, but the father mentioned here could be God or Abraham. What does seem unlikely was that any individual prayed to God as their Father - to do so was, at the very least, to make a messianic claim]
In other words, Jesus is asking, 'Why have you been searching for me? Why didn't you come to the temple first? Who is my real father?'
And I know as a parent that when you do lose a child (and we've been there), you don't think rationally. You panic – but in your panic you need to stop and think, as best you can. And Joseph and Mary knew about Jesus. They'd had the message of the angels, the trauma of Mary's virgin pregnancy and birth. They had run for their lives from Herod, and lived in exile, because of who Jesus was. You don't forget that. And so when Jesus was missing in Jerusalem they really should have thought, "Ah, well that is obvious. Jesus is missing in Jerusalem. Where will he have gone? He is the God-child. He will have gone to his other Father. Let's go to the temple."
But when they lost Jesus, they forgot God. They thought, ‘Jesus - on his own in Jerusalem - who will he have gone to? Let's go round all the relatives, the friends, all our contacts in Jerusalem’. The one thing they didn't do was pray. We know that, because they don't go to the temple till the third day. And my guess is that by then they must have feared the worst. They didn't go there to look for Jesus. They went there because by now they were desperate. They went there to pray.
As an aside, we give ourselves far more anxiety (particularly in the bringing up of children) than we need, by using prayer as the last resort when we are utterly desperate, rather than the first thing we do.
We don't need to go to the temple, or come to church for a guaranteed connection to God. Because of Jesus we can pray wherever we are. And although we can, in a panic, pray 'God help me', we usually need to stop what we are doing for a moment; if possible go to a different room (Jesus says, 'Go to your room and shut the door' [Matthew 6:6]) and pray. And then try to sort it out.
The problem is that, like Joseph and Mary, when we are out of our depth, when fear grips us, when we are sick with anxiety - we don't pray. We become practical atheists: it is all about what we can do.
[Note: It is also significant that Jesus' question to his parents, 'Why were you searching for me - didn't you know that I had to be in my Father's house', is echoed by the question asked of the women who are again looking for Jesus; but this time they are looking for his body after his crucifixion. The angels say, "Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He is not here; he is risen" (Luke 24:5)]
So Jesus knew that he was the Son of God.
He really could have been the most arrogant of teenagers – although in his case it would not have been arrogance.
And yet, we are told in Luke 2:51, he goes to Nazareth with his parents and was obedient to them. A more accurate translation is that he 'submitted himself' to his parents.
In other words, what we are talking about here is not an external obedience, but an internal obedience.
The story is told of the little boy who is standing up in the back of the car. His mum has been telling him to sit down. Finally dad loses it and yells, 'Sit down, or I am turning this car round and we are going back home, and then you will be in trouble'. The boy sits down and the journey continues in an uncomfortable silence. And then this little voice is heard from the back, 'Outside I am sitting down. Inside I am standing up'.
The Christian virtue of obedience, submission is not an ‘outside’ obedience done because we have to, or out of fear, or to get them to like you. The Christian virtue of obedience is a freely chosen obedience to another person.
[We are told that earlier, when Jesus was a baby, in Luke 2:40, ‘After Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him' (Luke 2:39-40). Now that he is 12, almost an adult by Jewish practice, we are told, 'He went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them .. And as Jesus grew up, he increased in wisdom and in favour with God and people'.
Do you see the difference? There is no reference to obedience before Jesus was 12. Paradoxically, it is only as you grow older, as you begin to become an adult that you can truly choose to be obedient to another. You can only choose to be obedient when non-obedience is also an option.]
So why are we told that Jesus chose to be obedient to Joseph and Mary?
1. It is a picture of the divine humility:
It is how Philippians 2 was lived out in Jesus’ life.
There we are told that: “And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross”.
Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, who created life and being, time and space, humbled himself – because of love – and became a human being.
And as a human being he humbled himself before other human beings; he allowed himself to be subject to human laws and to human authorities.
He ate his sprouts not because he wanted to, but because Mary told him to – and he had chosen to be obedient to her.
And later in life, he allowed himself – the judge of all people – to stand before Pilate, and to be sentenced to death.
Jesus subjected himself not just to God, but also to human authorities – even when those human authorities completely messed up
2. It is recognition of the role of parents
The role of parents is recognised in the fifth commandment: ‘Honour your father and mother so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you’. It is often pointed out that the fifth commandment is the only commandment which has a direct blessing associated with it.
There is so much that could be said here! All I note is that if Jesus recognises the importance of parents, then we dismiss the idea of the importance of fathers and mothers to our own risk. A generation which respects and honours previous generations, which does not always think that change is good and which does not assume that it knows best, is going to be, inevitably, live in a more stable society than one that does not.
3. It is an example to us
If Jesus chose to be obedient to his parents, then as people who follow him, we too are called to be obedient – not just to our parents, but to those authority structures which we find ourselves under.
However, we need to be careful here.
There is the obedience that is motivated by fear, compulsion or the desire to please
And there is the obedience which is motivated by the love of God.
The Christian tradition really does not get hung up about rights.
That is probably one of the reasons why Christians have not always been in the forefront of the fight for civil liberties. Yes, there have been some shining lights. One thinks of Wilberforce and the emancipation of the slaves; one thinks of Martin Luther King and the struggle for racial equality in the United States. But on issues such as women's rights or the rights of oppressed minorities, we've never been completely in the forefront. We always seem to be following a secular agenda.
But there is a reason for that: and it is not that Christians are racist or misogynist (although we have been at times and need to repent). It is not simply because Christianity has colluded with the powerful and the status quo (although, again, we have and we need to repent). Rather it is because Christians have never put asserting their individual rights very high on the agenda. They are not primarily concerned about external freedoms, but about an internal freedom. And they have not, like society, made civil liberty and human rights their ultimate God.
Rather Christians are called quite explicitly not to assert their rights, to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ [Ephesians 5:21], which means to look to consider the other person as better than myself, and to look for their interests and not just my own [Philippians 2:3]. And that is an expression of love.
And while the New Testament does teach that if a person can improve their situation (without pulling someone else down) they should do so [cf 1 Corinthians 7:21-22], we should never make that our goal in life.
Instead, our goal in life is love: the desire to be united with others, as brothers and sisters, in the Lord Jesus Christ, and so the New Testament calls us to be obedient to those under whose authority we find ourselves in order to win them over for Christ.
So for instance, in a society in which wives were treated as objects which belonged to their husbands and were expected to submit to their husbands, Peter writes in 1 Peter 3:1 ‘Wives in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of their lives.’ In other words the key priority is not the assertion of rights, but love that seeks for others to come to know the love of God.
And if, for a moment, I can flip this around and speak about those times when we do exercise authority over others, please remember that this kind of ‘inside’ obedience can never be compelled.
Of course as parents, officers, teachers, employers we can demand outward obedience. There are times when it is necessary to do so. We can sing that line from ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ very loudly. We can compel them to sit down on the outside. But that is not the sort of obedience that is being spoken of here.
Rather, if we are to allow our children or the people who work for us, to discover the true freedom of inward obedience, which comes from God and the Holy Spirit, then your task is not to get those people to simply do what you say. Your job is not to rule them, but to genuinely serve them, so that they are lifted up, exalted, and given independence to become fully mature adults.
Only a completely free adult can truly obey.
And if they choose to walk away from us, to reject all that we stand for, even to spit in our face, it will hurt like hell. God knows.
4. It is an example of Jesus’ total trust in the purposes of God.
The reason that Jesus was able to be obedient to very flawed human authorities, even a human authority who sentenced him to be tortured and then executed, was because he was absolutely firm in his identity as Son of God, and he was absolutely convinced that the purposes of God would triumph in the end.
And as a Christian, whoever you are, and wherever you find yourself in the ladder of life – at the top or at the bottom; or if you find yourself in an incredibly difficult or painful situation which you simply cannot change – you can still choose to love and, if necessary, choose to obey - because, as a Christian, like Jesus Christ, you know that God’s purposes will ultimately triumph, that the experiences you face in this world are preparing you for a weight of glory that you cannot imagine, that you belong to another world, that you are deeply and profoundly beloved child of God.