The First Sunday of Christmas; Year C (12/27/2009)

Good Question

Lessons:     1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26     Psalm 148 (13)     Colossians 3:12-17     St. Luke 2:41-52

Prayer of the Day Shine into our hearts the light of your wisdom, O God, and open our minds to the knowledge of your word, that in all things we may think and act according to your good will and may live continually in the light of your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

2:41 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43 When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44 Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” 49 He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he said to them. 51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

St. Luke 2:41-52 New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

Some of us grew up in faith environments where questions weren’t allowed. I’ve heard stories about people who were advised early on to keep their questions to themselves. Sometimes that advice came from a church that was very specific about what it believed, and unwilling to consider any other point of view. Sometimes that advice came from church leaders who weren’t confident enough to deal with hard questions, and so they chose to simply ignore them. Sometimes that advice came from parents who felt incapable of helping their children find credible answers to their questions. But in every case, that was bad advice. We learn so much, and we grow so much, from pursuing answers to our own questions, that it is unwise (and unfaithful!) for anyone to try and suppress the questions of young people, or of anyone else for that matter.

That may seem like a modern way of thinking. But in fact, it is based on very ancient practice. There are only a couple stories about Jesus as a child, and one of them is this week’s Gospel lesson: the familiar story about when Jesus was inadvertently left behind in Jerusalem by his parents. They returned to town and searched high and low for him, only to find him in the temple. Here is how Luke describes it:

After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 

Mary and Joseph found Jesus sitting with the teachers, studying with them, and asking them questions. He wasn't memorizing scripture. He wasn't learning rules and regulations. He wasn't listening to clever lectures. He was asking questions — inviting the teachers in the Temple to help him resolve difficulties he had, and understand the more complex issues involved in being a faithful person.

If we are honest, we have to admit that there are any number of difficult questions that come with our faith, and with the Biblical story that informs what we believe.

  • Why do chapters one and two of Genesis disagree with one another?
  • Did Jonah really get swallowed by a fish?
  • Would a loving and gracious God delight in drowning Pharaoh's army in the Reed Sea?
  • Should the Hebrew word almah (young woman) or the Greek word gunaikos (virgin) be used to describe Jesus' mother?

In some people's minds, these kinds of questions threaten the tenets of the faith, and cast suspicion on everything that we profess to be true. So they protected their faith from these kinds of questions, perhaps fearing that it would be destroyed.

All too often, that's been the attitude of the church:

  • The priest Abiathar was thrown out of Israel after questioning King Solomon about the death of his brother.
  • The astronomer Copernicus was put to death for questioning whether or not the sun actually revolved around the earth.
  • The monk Martin Luther was excommunicated for encouraging people to question the authority of the Roman church.

God’s people have displayed a powerful fear of those who ask troubling questions...

But in today's Gospel, the picture of Jesus in the temple teaches us quite the opposite This kind of hard questioning actually deepens faith. Growth in faith comes from asking, and struggling to answer the difficult questions. Jesus asked questions — and remember what happened to him:

[He] increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

The Gospel writer leaves no doubt that the inquisitiveness observed in the young Jesus was part of what helped him to grow in wisdom. By asking the teachers to explain themselves, he began to understand for himself, and make his faith his own.

As was true for Jesus, asking questions can stretch our understanding of God and the Gospel. Questioning makes our beliefs our own, because we've understood them, and come to cherish them. Everybody knows that it is possible to accept a belief system as it is, and some do that. But to receive that heritage of faith in love, and then to test it and question it and wrestle with it is to make it our own. Although the process can be difficult, it is one of the few ways to end up with a faith that is living, and vibrant, and vital to our day-to-day living.

This morning, throughout the nation, college students are home from school — many of them attending worship with their families. They've returned, most of them, from ten weeks or so of asking tough questions, strengthening their minds, and challenging one another to grow in learning. I find myself wondering what kind of atmosphere they will find in their home churches. Will they be in places that fear questions, and suppress anything that challenges them or makes them feel uncomfortable? Or will they be places that welcome their questions, and use them to probe the depths of the faith?

May God grant that we will be bold enough and wise enough to allow our faith to be questioned, to struggle together to understand the deeper issues of our faith, and to encourage one another to be open to the change and growth that can come from such a process. If we can do that, then we will have learned much from this morning's story of Jesus in the temple. And we can be confident that if we are brave enough to struggle with the important questions, with the help of the Holy Spirit, it will be said of us as well: that we grew in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week’s Gospel:

  1. Why was Jesus in the temple with the teachers?
  2. What does it mean that he found it important to share his questions with him?
  3. What do you suppose Mary "treasured in her heart" about this incident?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. When have I been encouraged to take my own questions seriously?
  2. When has wrestling with a faith question helped me to grow stronger in faith?
  3. What questions do I currently have about my faith or my God?