Celebrating New Births
SO- we have received Poppy by baptism into the Christian church. We have promised to encourage and nurture her in faith. We have prayed that she will come to follow Jesus Christ for herself. After all, this is the hope at the very heart of a child’s baptism.
It is not long, is it, since we were singing the Christmas carol “Once in Royal David’s city,” Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ her little child….. Christian children all must be mild, obedient, good as he… for he is our childhood’s pattern.” In other words, Christian children should follow Jesus’ example.
But this is the only story we have of Jesus as a child and he is not being mild and obedient, is he? He is causing his parents serious grief. This is surely one of those stories which should carry the warning, “kids, do not under any circumstances try this at home.” And should I be saying to Charlotte and Benedict that if, when Poppy is twelve, she goes missing for three whole days and you find her in a church discussing theology with the Minister, it is your Christian duty to say, Hallelujah? I think not.
Various Christian writers have tried to whitewash the boy Jesus and justify his actions- after all, he was the Son of God. It was his parents who were making a fuss about nothing because they did not understand. But I must confess, that being the mother of two sons, my favourite comment is in a novel by Alice Thomas Ellis (herself a devout Roman Catholic) where a lady called Aunt Irena declares that had she been Mary and Joseph, she would have shaken the boy Jesus until his teeth rattled, God or no God.
I cannot help wondering why Luke included this story in his Gospel. It is hardly flattering to Jesus. It is like one of those embarrassing stories of your childhood that parents bring out at your wedding or your graduation or when they meet your new partner for the first time. “Do you KNOW what he did when he was twelve years’ old?’
But, if you think about it, none of the Biblical authors actually present carefully sanitised versions of the people they write about. The Bible tends to record and reflect on life as it really is and on people as they really are. All the great figures of Biblical history: Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Peter, Paul have highly embarrassing anecdotes recorded about them. Both the human and the divine come over very strongly. And yes, there are stories written down even about Jesus which make us frown a bit and think, “did he really say that?”
I cannot remember ever preaching on this story before. It appears very seldom in the lectionary of Bible readings suggested for each Sunday so quite possibly other preachers don’t like it much either…
But on reading it this time I did gain a couple of insights which I thought were worth sharing with you, on the day of a baby’s baptism. Both came from being Jesus was twelve years old. Luke clearly thought it very important that we know that Jesus was twelve. Why?
In the first place, I now see no need to whitewash the boy or, alternatively, to deny him any credibility as Son of God when he behaved like that. He was twelve years old. Think back to when you were twelve or thirteen or fourteen. Can you honestly say that you never gave your parents a moment’s anxiety? That you were never to be found somewhere you should not have been? That you could understand totally why your parents made such a fuss about knowing where you were going and who you were going with?
Jesus was twelve and your average twelve-year-old is starting to feel ready to go his own way and do his own thing. Your average twelve-year-old cannot see why her parents still need to organise her life for her. Your average twelve-year-old will-quite unintentionally-cause his parents considerable stress. It is called growing up. And growing up is a difficult process for both children and parents. It is only when we finally reach some kind of maturity that we begin to empathise with our parents and give their needs and feelings as much consideration as our own.
Can Luke be suggesting then, that Jesus was not born perfect? Sounds a bit radical…. But although this may lower Jesus in some people’s estimation, it does not lower him in mine. After all, we are told about his serious wrestling with temptation in the desert as a young man about to embark on his ministry. It showed that he was human. It showed that he had been exactly where we have been and faced the same painful and complex decisions. This story of him when he was twelve reveals that he was not the “perfect child.” (let’s face it, most of us cannot bear perfect children anyway). He was flesh and blood. He experienced the same conflict between teenage inclinations and duty to parents that we all experience. And yes, he would more than once have given his parents the urge to shake him. Because that is what happens to normal children with normal parents.
But he got through this stage. One of the last things he said as he was dying in agony on the cross was to ask John to take care of his mother. Maybe he was not born a perfect child, but he died a most perfectly loving son.
And this might help loving, committed parents, maybe especially Christian parents who feel that their faith and the Christian upbringing they try to give their child should make that child better than average. And when that child starts to take a different path in life to the one we have hoped and prayed for, we wonder where we went wrong and why God and the church could not have helped us do a better job. But this story of Jesus, aged twelve, is a story of a child on a journey, not a child who has “arrived.” The road to maturity and to faith is a long one for all of us and for some it is far longer than it is for others. The great thing about faith and prayer and love is that we never give up hope that our child will arrive at the right place in the end.
Jesus was twelve years old. One year short of his thirteenth birthday. Jewish boys (of which he was one) celebrated their bar mitzvah at thirteen. This was what made them “adult” in their community, recognised as having a serious position in their society, with opinions to share and be listened to. Before this age, they were reckoned as children, to be loved and taught but not to express ideas of their own.
So, when Jesus sat with the religious teachers in the Temple, he was breaking precedent. He was only twelve, still a child in their eyes, yet he was surprising them with what he knew and what he understood. And this was my second insight: that it is about our children surprising us.
One of my greatest privileges in ministry at this church is preparing the monthly Church Parade Services with each Guiding and Scouting group in turn. I start out with no more than a basic theme and a few questions to start them talking. And I never cease to be amazed at what they come out with. Because most of them come from non-church-going families, they have no prior inhibitions about what you may say to a Minister and what you may not. I get the truth. And my guess is that I learn easily as much as they do, possibly even more.
More than once in his ministry Jesus spoke of the vital part children play in teaching the adults in their lives truth about God and about life and about faith. He actually said that we must become like children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. And he was not talking naivety. He was talking trust. Children are born into a dangerous world but if they have parents, friends and families who love them, they will trust what they say and what they do. They will trust that love to be there for them when they need it. They will trust that love when it tells them what is good and what is evil. They will trust that love to pick them up when they fall down. They will recognise that love as a source of strength inside them which will enable them to go out into that dangerous world and take it on. They will even know that love as their redemption when they have messed up badly and don’t know where to turn for forgiveness.
This, says Jesus, is how you must be with God, your heavenly Father. Put aside all your religious perfectionism and control freakery. Stop competing to be the best. Stop trying to prove yourself to God because this is not what He needs or wants. Come to Him as a child to a loving parent and you will learn the truth of who He is.
When training for the ministry I studied a lot of theology. It was good and necessary. I have never believed that people should be required to leave their brains at the door when they come to church. Most of that theology is still with me and more has been added along the way. But when I talk with children and young people it gets put into context. I am no longer engaging with academic professors brilliant though they are, but with boys who are football mad; teenagers who are stressing out about exams; little children who find their inspiration in Disney heroes and heroines; school pupils who are asking anxious questions about the future of our environment; twelve year olds who just beginning their own battles for independence with their parents. I hear about life. I am challenged to relate what I know about God to what they know about life.
Despite being something of a control freak myself, I have learned to go along to Parade Planning sessions with a completely open mind and let them take the lead. And I have never yet come away without at least one inspiring new thought that we have then been able to share with the congregation.
Jesus was only twelve, a child, yet the religious and theological teachers of his day were amazed at his understanding. Let your children amaze you.
So, to finish- I remember a friend of mine who had become a grandmother sharing her excitement at the baby but also her fears for the child’s future. “Look at the world,” she said, “There is so much bad and wrong and frightening about what is going on. What will there be for my grandson when he grows up?”
It is difficult to know what to say because you cannot deny the truth behind her fear. I just cautiously offered the hope that maybe this baby would be someone who made a difference to the world. Maybe he would do something, be someone who shed a bit of light, did a bit of good, helped and inspired others to make the world a better place. Because, after all, we do not come into the world as spectators or consumers, do we? We come into the world as participants. Everything we do will have a knock-on effect on our nation, our environment, our family- an effect we shall probably never see for ourselves, but it will be there. Science has proved it.
So if we bring up our children to believe that they are children of God, with something of God in them, this might inspire them and us with hope for the future of the world. Who knows, Poppy might have a share in the curing of cancer, in the halting of global warming, in turning the tide of decline in the church, in getting homeless people off the streets, (no pressure..). But she might. Many of us, by the faith we hold and the way we live and the things we do might just be making a difference in a small way to something seriously big. That is one of the reasons for worship- to set our lives in the context of God’s eternity and to ask whether what we are doing is making a change for good or a change for bad.
Remember the song:
Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you?
Mary, did you know?
We none of know what will happen to our children nor what they will cause to come about. Mary only knew in part what her baby was all about but she cared for him, nurtured him in faith and in goodness, inspired him to believe in God and in himself as someone in whom God lived and through whom God would save the world. And he did.