By Gavin Dunbar
“And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man. ” St. Luke 2:52
There are about thirty years of Jesus’ life of which we know almost nothing. From the time, shortly after his birth, that Jesus returned to Nazareth, until the day, about thirty years later, that he left Nazareth, and was baptized by John in the river Jordan, the gospels are silent, with one exception. That exception is today’s Gospel lesson from St. Luke, in which we are given a glimpse of Jesus at the age of twelve, making his first pilgrimage to Jerusalem to keep the Passover. It teaches us something about Christ’s own growing up, and also about our growing up in Christ. And it has a particular application to Christian parents, and to Christian children.
The critical incident took place after the festival was over: Jesus did not return with his family and neighbors, but was found by his parents after three days of frantic searching among the learned scribes of the temple courts, “both hearing them, and asking them questions,” and astonishing all present with “his understanding and answers.” His parents also were amazed, and reproached him, but Jesus was matter of fact about what takes him there: “How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?”
It is a moment of epiphany, a showing forth of divine sonship, which is why we read it on this first Sunday after the Epiphany. Jesus demonstrates his own growing consciousness of himself as having a unique relation to God, as that of Son to Father. Nonetheless, he returns with Joseph and Mary, and “was subject unto them.” St. Luke concludes the account with the comment, that “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man”.
Now just consider the paradoxes implicit in that matter of fact statement. He who is Almighty God is subject unto the authority of a village craftsman and his young wife. He who is changeless and eternal God, lives within time, and changes. Pure and absolute Spirit grows in stature. Infinite Wisdom must learn and grow in wisdom. Even Christians have trouble believing that the Son of God took upon himself human nature, not only in a body, but also in a mind and will, which means that he shared completely in our own growth from ignorance to knowledge. But that he did so is the most astonishing good news – that, in the child born of Mary, God has begun to share our human life, and he has done so, so that we might begin to share in his own divine life. He who subjected himself to our ignorance, and grew up in wisdom and stature, that we who are ignorant, might grow up into his wisdom and stature. Divine wisdom is manifest to us in human flesh, in order that divine wisdom might be manifest in us.
There is of course a critical difference between his growing up and ours, which his simply that the growth of his mind and will were not crippled by egotism, greed, envy, and lust, the way ours are. But that is just to say that he is more fully human than we are, not less. And the growth of that perfect humanity to its full maturity, undistorted by sin, is the counterpart of the other critical difference between his growing up and ours: which is that he is divine as well as human. But that also is grounds for comfort: This youth may come from Nazareth in Galilee, he may be twelve years old; but there is in his mind and will a unique awareness of a unique relation to the Father, and a unique capacity to grasp the eternal purpose of God, set forth in the Scriptures, to be fulfilled in himself, the Son sent to fulfill his Father’s business. We have in this boy, one who really understands the wisdom and will of God, one who will be able to fulfill it.
With the benefit of hindsight, we may discern already the paths in which divine wisdom will lead the Son of God: at another Passover in Jerusalem, about twenty years later, zeal for his Father’s business will take the Son of God away from his mother and friends; for three days they will seek him sorrowing, and find him them in circumstances that astonish them, manifest as the Son of God, as the Wisdom of God, and the Power of God. The pattern of divine wisdom, of Christ’s death and resurrection are present already, dimly foreshadowed in a twelve-year old boy.
Glorious as this epiphany of divine wisdom is, none of this makes a whole lot of sense of Joseph and Mary. How could their son do this to them? And what did he mean by it? “They understood not the saying which he spake unto them.” They are not able to take in the implications of Jesus’ divine sonship. For on them as on us the revelation of the Wisdom of God comes as something of a contradiction to our worldly ways of knowing. It is not obvious to human understanding.
The wisdom of God breaks in upon the world as a contradiction of worldly wisdom, and gives us a new starting point, a new perspective, a transforming outlook upon all that lies before us. And our vocation as Christians is radically dependent upon that staring point, that wisdom. As there has been an epiphany of divine wisdom to us, so there must also be an epiphany of divine wisdom in us. “Be not conformed to this world” says St. Paul, “but be ye transformed by the renewing of your minds, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God.” The temptations to conformity are ever with us, and the Church is not proof against all kinds of folly and ignorance. Nor are even faithful Christians exempt from confusion and perplexity, as they seek to know God’s will, and to apply it. But the pains of perplexity are often the birth pangs of understanding; and if like Mary we “keep all these sayings in our hearts,” and ponder them, God will surely illuminate our minds by the Holy Spirit, so that we may come to understand them more clearly.
Now a brief word to Christian parents, and a brief word to Christian children. Parents: your children are not your own. They belong to God. In bringing them to rebirth in baptism as the children of God, you have acknowledged that their first relationship is not with you, but with God. Like Mary and Joseph, you have been granted authority over them, to care for them, and to nurture them, as they grow up to maturity. But yours is the authority of stewards: they belong to God. And your job is to prepare them to be his children, to know him, to love him, to serve him, to worship him, that they might inherit his kingdom, and enjoy him for ever.
Parenting, as you already know, requires sacrifice. The mother knows about this sacrifice in a very immediate, bodily way: her body carries and nourishes this child both in the womb and in her arms after birth. But the father also is drawn into this sacrifice too, as, like Joseph, he must watch over, provide for, and cherish not only the child but also the mother entrusted to his care. That sacrifice does not diminish with time, but it increases. For the child, as he grows up, grows away from you, impelled by his very nature to seek his place in the world, and his place before God. Even Jesus drove his parents nuts: some of that is simply part of growing up and finding their own relationship with God. And your job as parents is not to hold on to him, but to prepare him for this and to direct him toward God. The paradox of it all is this: that the more you give up, the more you get back. The child who grows up as the son of God is the child who will bring the most back to his parents and will bring them the greatest and best joy. The child you gave up returns to you as the man or woman who is a fellow-citizen of the Kingdom of God, and a friend in Christ.
It is not enough to bring children into this world, and it is certainly not enough to teach them the ways of this world, so that they may achieve some kind of worldly success according to worldly estimates of such things. You have not really succeeded as parents until you have taught your children to be the children of God, until you have taught them the wisdom of God. There is no one better equipped to do this that yourselves: for however much they may criticize you in their teenage years, however much they may detach themselves from you, your influence, your example, your teaching, your witness, will shape them most of all. If pride, and envy, and anger, and lust, and greed, are what you teach them, be sure that they will learn that lesson well: if faith, and hope, and love, and courage, and justice, and prudence, and temperance, are yours, be sure that they will learn that also.
And now a briefer word to children, and young people, especially those in their teens. Jesus was the Son of God. He knew that he must be about his Father’s business. And you have been made the children of God in baptism. And you too must be about your Father’s business, you too must discover what plans God has in store for you to fulfill, what inheritance and what destiny for which he has made you the person you are.
The way into that kingdom is shown us by Jesus. First of all, Jesus seeks wisdom before he seeks power. As today’s collect puts it, he seeks knowledge of God’s will for him before he seeks grace and power to carry it out. Likewise, your first task is to learn wisdom, wherever it is to be found, and above all the wisdom of God, recorded in the Bible, the Catechism, the Prayer Book. This is a wisdom for you to study, and to learn, first of course as learning, but also as life, as an outlook and perspective in which to live, to make your decisions. Remember St. Paul’s words: “be not conformed to this world” and its wisdom, “but be ye transformed, by the renewing of your minds, that ye may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
Secondly, notice that Jesus is subject unto his parents. No one would have more right to rebel against their authority, than the sinless Son of God, who must be about his Father’s business. But he does not. He submits to their authority and honors them with his obedience. In our teenage years especially, we are stretching our muscles, hungry to experience the freedom of making our own decisions, taking control of our own lives. But as in the army, only those who have learned how to obey are given power to command. Freedom and power only destroy those who do not know how to use them well. Freedom and power require reason and responsibility, which we learn from our parents through obedience to them, until that rationality and responsibility become our own. Moreover, freedom is not a matter primarily of external circumstances, but of the heart and mind and conscience. Subject yourselves to your parents, freely, and freedom will be yours already.
We give thanks this day for the glorious epiphany of God’s Wisdom in the Incarnate Christ, the son of Mary; giving thanks that this wisdom has been given to us, to believe, to know, to understand, to live out. And we pray especially for Christian parents, and for Christian children, that with them, we too may grow up into the wisdom of God, and be transformed by the renewing of our minds, that we may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God. Amen.
Jesus is like any other twelve-year-old boy, except in a less confused state. He seeks knowledge of himself, who he is, what he is good at, what he is for: and that inevitably involves knowledge of where he fits in the grand scheme of things, which is to say knowledge of God. In a certain sense, that is the whole human vocation in this world. Saint Augustine said that he aspired to know only God and his own soul, nothing more. For “the whole of knowledge belongs to that aspiration, because all our knowings and all our lovings, from the lowest to the highest, are aspects of the one striving of the restless heart, which can rest only in the loving knowledge of God”: (Robert D. Crouse, “Knowledge”, in Augustine through the Ages, 1999).
The Rev. Gavin Dunbar is rector of St. John’s, Savannah, Georgia and president of the Prayer Book Society USA.