An Evolving Faith (A sermon from Luke 2:41-52)
As far as my memories go back I remember being in the church house on Sundays. It did not always go well for me on Sundays. I can vaguely remember one Sunday when my parents and my best friend’s parents let us sit together during Sunday worship by ourselves. We decided to take the foil wrapper of a piece of chewing gum and make a little paper football. We had a whole side pew to ourselves so Keith slid over to one side and I to the other. We made goal posts with our hands and thumbs and kicked field goals. One of my kicks deviated from its intended path and landed inside a curl of the lady sitting in the pew directly in front of us. She was hard of hearing so we didn’t worry too much, but Keith got tickled and I got tickled, enough that our parents took note. Well, that was the last time we got to sit together for a very long time. I also remember as a kid sitting in worship as the preacher seemed to drone on and on thinking, “What person in their right mind would want to do this every Sunday – how awful.” Well, God works in mysterious ways.
Over the years my faith has evolved and changed. But I have no doubt that what I learned and what I was taught and the faith practices I participated in, even when I didn’t want to and when my mind was in some other place, nevertheless have had an impact on my faith formation. Clearly there are elements of my childhood faith I no longer believe, but please understand, I am very grateful for being brought up in the church.
Jesus is brought up in the church, that is, the synagogue. Jesus is raised in the Jewish faith and is required by his parents to participate in the rituals and practices of Judaism. Jesus is carried into the temple before he can even walk. His parents are observant Jews who strive to do all that they believe is expected of them. On the eighth day they bring the infant Jesus to the temple to be circumcised and then less than a month later they consecrate him to the Lord in the temple.
So Jesus is brought up in the Jewish tradition and is faithful to the Jewish tradition. When Luke sets forth Jesus’s agenda by telling how he read from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue at Nazareth, Luke begins that segment by saying that Jesus “when he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.” Luke is telling us that Jesus was faithful to his religious tradition.
In our text today we see Jesus as a boy who is becoming a man questioning and discussing religious matters with the teachers of the Torah. In those days the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem was made by extended families and friends who traveled together in a caravan, so his parents would not have thought much about not seeing Jesus on the day’s journey. But then, when Jesus doesn’t show up that evening they get worried, and soon realize Jesus is not in the caravan. They find their son three days later in the temple discussing and debating with the teachers of the Law. When Jesus is rebuked by his parents as he should have been, Jesus responds with his own rebuke, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Only Luke has this story, and scholars wonder where it came from. Was this part of the oral tradition handed down to Luke, or did Luke come up with this on his own. Who knows? Personally, I think Luke tells this story here to show that even before Jesus fully entered adult life, he was passionate about the teachings and traditions of his faith.
But that’s not all of it by any means. There is an edginess and radicalness to Jesus portrayed here, that is a foreshadowing of things to come. In this story Jesus shows no concern about his parent’s anxiety over his well-being. It’s not even on his radar. So when his parents rebuke him for being irresponsible (and he certainly was being irresponsible) and for creating this situation he dismisses them and says, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” with an emphasis on “must.” What would you say to a teenage son or daughter who says that to you, after you spent three days trying to find him or her? I know what I would say and what I would do and it wouldn’t be pleasant.
Let’s think for a moment what Luke may be trying to say by telling this story. Luke seems to be suggesting that Jesus’ passion for God and God’s will emerged out of his own personal experience of God. He calls God “my Father.” Well, God was looked upon as father by the Jews, but generally this was more of a formal kind of relationship grounded in a theology of covenant. The Jews looked to God as the God who had entered into covenant with them and so was the father of the Jewish people. Jesus, however, speaks of God on a more personal level. Jesus uses the Aramaic term “Abba” to speak of God and pray to God, which was an expression that little children used to speak to their fathers. It was a word that reflected the intimate, personal experience between a child and loving parents. Keep in mind, too, this was a patriarchal culture where the divine-human associations “Abba” implies could just as easily be applied to mother. The point here is that Jesus claimed a personal experience and relationship with the God who entered into covenant with Israel. It is Jesus’ experience of God as “Abba,” as loving father and mother that ignites his work and ministry. It is his personal experience of God that compels him to confront and challenge some of the narrowness and injustices he found in his religious faith and traditions. This is why he frequently provokes his fellow Jews, especially the religious leaders. Here, his provocation of his parents anticipates what is to come.
Right out of the box in Luke 4 Jesus confronts the elitism and exceptionalism and favoritism and nationalism that pervaded the Judaism of his day. We face a similar context today in our culture. I don’t think the nationalism and favoritism and prejudice are as pervasive in our culture today as it was in Jesus’ culture, or even in American culture prior to the civil rights movement, but these negatives forces are certainly present, especially in the halls of power. When Jesus is teaching in his hometown he makes a case from their own Scriptures (the Hebrew Bible) that God does not show favoritism and sometimes chooses non-believers, non-Jews to do God’s will. It’s a fascinating story. At the beginning the people are praising the gracious words coming out of his mouth. However, by the time he finishes Luke says the people are in a rage trying to hurl him off a cliff.
Again, we face similar opposition on this front today in Christianity that Jesus faced in Judaism. It’s not all that different. Most Christians think they are the only ones on God’s side and the only ones God saves. I know because I use to be one of those Christians. They think you have to be a Christian to know God or experience God’s grace. They think God’s healing, redeeming grace is exclusive to Christians. That’s what I was taught and what I believed for a number of years, and I suspect many of you did too. Sisters and brothers, we don’t need to covert the world to Christianity, we need to covert the world to the experience of and embodiment of the love of God. If this comes through Christianity, great. If it doesn’t, that’s okay too. Of course, this kind of conversion has to begin in us. Too many Christians are running around trying to convert others, who themselves need converted. Actually we all do, every day. There are many days I need a fresh conversion and commitment to a lifestyle of God’s love. So when you think about it, we face a situation today in Christianity that was not much different than what Jesus faced in the Judaism of his day and what Jesus confronted in his hometown synagogue.
I think any Christian who questions the things that Jesus questioned will face some degree of opposition. Hopefully, they won’t try to hurl us off a cliff like they did Jesus. I shared once before the opposition I felt when I preached at a Southern Baptist associational meeting. You might be thinking: Why did you do that for anyway? Well, I was asked. For many years our church has supported Jack and Wilma Simmons, who are Southern Baptists, in their work at West Point, Kentucky. Even though today we have no connections at all with the SBC we have continued to support their work in that poor community, which I think has been a good thing. We can certainly help people who may have some different beliefs than we do can’t we? Of course we can. One time after we had conducted a free fair in West Point Wilma asked me if I would preach at their annual meeting. I tossed this around in my head and concluded, wrongly, that if she really didn’t know how progressive I am and what I believe, then most likely no one else in her association did either. So I decided to go ahead and preach something safe, rather than try to explain to her why it might not be a good idea for me to speak at their Southern Baptist associational meeting. Well, apparently the pastors and leaders in that association did know something about me. What I felt in that church on that particular evening was unlike anything I have felt before. I have had people oppose me before and disagree with me and get angry with me, as I am sure I will again, but nothing like what I felt that evening. When I got up to speak the intensity of the opposition I felt in that building at that moment was almost palpable. It was like a fog in the air – unlike anything I had experienced before or have experienced sense. I really believe that anyone who tries to reform his or her faith will face something similar to that from time to time.
Whenever I talk to people who are ready to abandon their Christianity because of the hypocrisy they see in the church, or because of the teaching and doctrine they can no longer intellectually accept and believe, I try to convince them to not leave their faith, but rather, to dive deeper into it, which is what Jesus does within the Judaism of his day. Jesus never abandons Judaism. He goes deeper into it, beyond the misuses of it and the superficialities, and becomes passionate about reforming it. And as you would expect, he faces some stiff opposition. Jesus is pushed to the edge of Judaism by the religious establishment, but Jesus sticks with it, even though his critique and prophetic voice eventually gets him killed. It’s the Jewish leaders who conspire with the Roman authorities and persuade Pilate to execute him.
This little glimpse into the life of Jesus as a young man captures some of the passion and edginess of Jesus that we see displayed over and over again in the Gospels, and in particular, the Gospel of Luke. Jesus tells one would-be follower who was busy making arrangements for his father’s funeral to abandon his plans and join him. He says to him, “let the dead bury the dead, you come and follow me.” That’s on the edge however you slice and dice it exegetically and theologically. Who would say that to a man or woman preparing for the funeral of a loved one?
In Luke 14:26 Jesus turns to the crowd and says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Now, clearly, we would all concede I think that Jesus is employing hyperbole as he often does. Jesus often inserts shocking elements into his teaching and stories to grab people’s attention, but still, this is pretty radical isn’t it? You have to hate your loved ones to be my disciple.
I don’t think we are all called to go about the Lord’s business the same way Jesus did. Those who do, often end up dead like Jesus. But on the other hand, God, I believe, expects all of us who claim to be followers of Jesus to speak up and stand up for what is true and right and just and good. And that will take some courage. We don’t have to be a Martin Luther King Jr, or a Romero or a Ghandi, but God expects us to do justice, practice mercy, and walk in humility. And if you do that, you are going to get into some trouble from time to time. It is inevitable. If your faith has never got you into trouble with anyone, then, in all likelihood, you are not taking it seriously enough, or maybe you are too much a product of group think. That was my problem. I took my faith seriously as a young man, but I didn’t know how to think for myself, and maybe also, I was too afraid to challenge the group.
Jesus didn’t come to his sense of calling and his understanding of God all at once. He grew into it, according to Luke. Luke says, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom and the favor of God was upon him.” Like Jesus we must question and grow and not be afraid to challenge the status quo or the teachings of our tradition when it becomes clear to us that our traditions and practices are doing more harm than good. And we do that best not by abandoning our religious faith, but by moving deeper into it.
Faith is not and will never be something that is static. As life is constantly evolving so must our faith be evolving. I hope for each of us this coming year that we will make some progress – that our faith will grow and be ever expanding. In his letter to the Galatians Paul says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision or uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (5:6). The only thing that counts is faithfulness to the way of Jesus that is expressed through our love for others. Our beliefs, our traditions, our rituals, and our common practices of profession of faith, baptism, and Communion, count for nothing, unless they inspire us and lead us to be more loving persons. What we need today is an evolving faith that translates into an evolving love – a love that is more inclusive and expansive, a love that is more welcoming, accepting, forgiving, and affirming, a love that mirrors the love of Christ.
Lord, help us to realize that a living faith is always growing and a dynamic faith is always evolving, and sometimes, may even have an edginess to it the way Jesus’ did, because if it is authentic faith then it will always empower us to be more loving persons, and love always stands for and speaks up for what is good and right. Help us to have the courage to question, and go deeper into our faith in ways that inspire us and empower us to be more inclusive and affirming, to be more caring and compassionate, and to be more passionate about what is just and right and good. In the name of Christ, I pray. Amen.