Day: December 26, 2009

Sermon: Favor with God and Man

Favor With God and Man
Luke 2:41-52

41Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. 42When he was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom. 43After the Feast was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. 44Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. 45When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

49“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” 50But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

51Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.

A Story About A Boy

Christmas has come and gone, and we are now in the season of Christmastide, those days between the feast of Christmas and Epiphany, the time when the wisemen come to pay homage to the Christ Child.  But other than the story of Jesus’ birth, and the visit of the wisemen, this is the only story we have of Jesus as a boy.

Some of the ancient writings that are not in our Bible have fanciful tales of Jesus making little birds out of clay, and then breathing life into them.  And there are other stories of the boy Jesus performing other miracles.  But somehow those stories don’t ring true today, and didn’t seem credible to those who gathered the sacred texts we now call the Bible.  So this is the only story we have of Jesus as a child between his birth and his baptism as a grown man.

I always liked this story when I was a boy because it was about another boy.  When I was 10 or 12, I would sometimes disappear from my backyard, too.  I grew up in Columbus, Georgia, where my dad was minister of education at Eastern Heights Baptist Church there.  From the time I got my very own red Schwinn bicycle, I was on it as much as possible.

Sometimes it got me into trouble.  Like the time my friend, Charles, and I rode our bikes to the Columbus Municipal Airport and lay on the hillside by the runway watching the planes land and take-off.  Or the time he and I wandered over to Phoenix City, Alabama, just across the Chattahoochee River bridge from downtown Columbus.  You could buy firecrackers in Phoenix City, and Charles and I wanted some.  We were successful in buying them, but not in getting them home because a couple of older boys pushed us down and took them away from us.

So, I knew what it was like to be some place and your parents not know where you were.

Of course, I thought Jesus’ parents were way too soft on him.  Mine weren’t.  On more than one occasion I got spanked for going too far from home.  So, I was kind of jealous of Jesus in a way for getting off so light.  But then he had a great answer when his parents finally found him —

“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”

Well, I never could come up with an answer as good as that one, plus I wasn’t at church because I was either buying firecrackers or trespassing on airport property, neither of which were particularly spiritual pursuits.

But I always liked the story, nevertheless, just because it was about Jesus as a boy.  And I liked the verse that said in the King James Version —

“And Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.”

My mother had explained to me what that meant when I was younger.  Jesus grew wiser, he grew taller, and he found favor with both God and other people.  I am sure she encouraged me to do the same.

The growing in stature part was pretty well beyond my control, or I would have made myself taller.  But my mother pointed out, I am sure, that I could grow in wisdom and in favor with God and others.

The Point of the Story

Of course, most of the time the point of this story is the almost other-worldliness of Jesus.  He knew even as a kid what he was supposed to do.  And even as a 12-year old boy he was about his Father’s business.  We’re also pretty impressed, along with the teachers in the Temple, that a 12-year old was sitting with the teachers, the religious leaders, listening and talking.

This story then becomes a spiritual story for us, and we lose sight of the 12 year old boy sitting there.  Not to take anything away from the way we have traditionally understood the story, but I could identify with Jesus sitting and listening to the adults talk.

When we went to visit my mother’s family in south Georgia, the cousins would play outside all day in the hot Georgia sun.  We’d kick off our shoes and run in the sand road that passed by my grandparents’ farmhouse.  But in the evening, we’d all gather for supper — dinner was what you ate at lunchtime — and then after the supper dishes were cleared, everyone went out on the front porch.

There were two porch swings and several rocking chairs and all the adults would sit in the chairs or swings, while the kids played around the front porch steps.  But while we were playing, we were also listening.  And as we listened we heard stories about the neighbors, who was sick, or who had just had a baby; and we heard stories about the price of beef, or what corn was bringing, or how fertilizer had gone up.  But, we also heard stories about our relatives, some already gone to their reward.

It was sitting on that front porch on a Sunday afternoon that I heard my older cousin, Johnny Kitchens, talk about going to South America as a missionary, and what he was going to do down there.  That was the only conversation I remember because Johnny got polio in South America and died.  The little chapel at the First Methodist Church of Douglas, Georgia was dedicated in his memory later.

So Jesus was doing something kids have done for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  But, of course, he was also asking questions, and apparently answering them as well because all the teachers were amazed at his answers.  I had some teachers amazed at my answers in school, but not always because they were correct or profound.

The point of the story is to give us a clue that this 12 year old wasn’t just any 12 year old.  Even his parents were amazed at his response to them.

Favor with God and Man

Once we’ve told the story of Jesus in the Temple, and after we’ve read the last verse, we usually think about how we can grow in favor with God and man.  Which is a good thing to think about.  But we don’t get anymore clues about how Jesus did it — how he grew in favor with God and man.  There are no more stories about Jesus as a boy.  As a matter of fact, the next time we see Jesus, we see him at his baptism.  And, we hear God his Father saying,”This is my beloved son in whom I am well-pleased.”

So, Jesus kept growing in favor with God at least.  Man would be a different story because eventually some of the same teachers who were listening to Jesus in wonder that day might have been present when the cry went up, “Crucify him.”  But he continued to grow in favor with God right up until his baptism.

Which always made me wonder how I could do the same, and that usually was the point of sermons taken from this story.  Of course, it was a lot easier to explain how to fall out of favor with God.  There are a lot of ways you can do that.

This week I read Eli Weisel’s first book, Night.  Weisel is a Jew, and the Noble Peace Prize winner who survived the Holocaust.  I had read Weisel’s book, All Rivers Run To The Sea, but Night is his first book, the book that shocked a generation after World War II.

In Night, Weisel tells the story of how his family, and all the families of his small village in Transylvania, were forced from their homes, stripped of their possessions including their gold teeth, and taken in cattle cars by rail to a Nazi concentration camp.

Weisel recounts the horror of filth, degradation, genocide, and deprivation in this book of barely 100 pages.  His tone is not shrill or panicked, but he quietly tells the story of how his father and mother, and his sister and he are taken to an extermination camp.

One woman on the train appears to have a nervous breakdown.  Separated from her husband, she despairs to the point of madness.  Periodically during the train ride through the night, she stands and cries out, “Look at the fire! Look at the fire!”

The occupants of the cattle car strain to see through the slats, only to see the dark night outside.

Several times she jumps to her feet to shout the same message — “Look at the fire!”  Finally, two men gag and tie her up to keep her from disturbing everyone.

But as the train pulls into the concentration camp platform, Weisel says they were all stunned to see the giant smokestacks belching flames against the night sky.  Smokestacks that they would later learn were the crematoria where Jews were being burned.

The Holocaust stands as the epic example of how humanity can fail and fall so far from earning favor with either God or man.

The Father’s Favor

But I think the point of the story of Jesus in the Temple is just this — God loved him and, if possible, that Divine love grew.  God was more pleased each day with Jesus.

Jesus grew in favor the way a grandchild does.  Those of you who are grandparents know what I mean — when they’re born you love them, but as they grow older you delight in their learning to walk, to talk, and then in the funny things they say.  Each day, not because they do something to earn it, but each day they grow more precious to you without their having done anything.

I think that’s something of what growing in favor with God means.  Each day God loves us more and more.  Each day God’s grace shines upon us more fully than before.  Each day brings God’s delight in His creation, made in His own image, marred by sin, God takes such great delight in us that He sent Jesus to make all things new.

We think we have to earn God’s favor.  Of course, like Jesus, there are things we can do that please God greatly.  To be about God’s work, to love God’s word, to join with God’s people — these are all things that please God.  But God loves us without our deserving it.  Without our qualifying for it.  Without reservation, God loves us and Jesus is the proof of that love.

The Father’s favor comes to us in spite of ourselves, and in our worst moments.

So, how do we know when we have grown in favor with God?

I think God’s favor shows itself in the little things of life.  Do you know why we don’t have any other stories about Jesus as a boy?  I think it was because his life was so very ordinary.  He helped Joseph in the shop, went to synagogue school, obeyed his mother, played with other kids, ran the hills of Nazareth with the rest of the boys, and if they had a baseball team, threw a mean curve ball.  Of course, they didn’t have a baseball team, but they had something like it, and I’m sure Jesus was involved with the rest of the boys, whatever it was.

It’s in the little things of life that we know we have grown in favor with God.  Not the big gigantic things, not the great achievements, but in small ways God let’s us know we have found favor.

Madeleine L’Engle tells one such story.  While speaking at Wheaton College, word came to her that her 9-year old granddaughter, Lena,  had been hit by a truck while she was walking home from swimming.  The news was not good — Lena had two broken legs, broken ribs, her jaw was fractured in two places, her arms and legs had bruises and contusions, and she had a head wound that laid open her scalp to the bone.

She finished her lecture at Wheaton, and asked there for prayer for her granddaughter.  Returning to her room, she tried to call both an Episcopal clergy friend of hers in New York, and the Episcopal Sisters who ran the school her granddaughters attended. Neither of her calls went through.  Finally, after ringing and ringing, one of the sisters answered.  Madeleine told her about Lena, and the sister said that all of New York was blacked out and that she had to feel her way through the dark building to find and answer the phone.  Later, the same sister would tell Madeleine that hers was the only call that came in that night, that afterward the phones quit working altogether.

As was her custom, that night in her hotel room, Madeleine L’Engle reached for the Episcopal Book of Prayer she carried with her.  She always read Evening Prayer.   However, that night when she turned to the Psalm for that evening, a photograph of Lena stood at the page.  Taken only a few days before, L’Engle had stuck it in her prayer book hastily without thinking.

She said she could barely stand to see the photo, but as she held the prayer book, a piece of paper fell from its pages.   Given to her years before by some Catholic nuns, the card contained a quote from St. John of the Cross, a medieval Christian mystic.  The quote read —

“One act of thanksgiving made when things go wrong is worth a thousand when things go well.”

And so she thanked God for Lena’s nine years of life, for their family, and for God’s blessings.  Ten days later, little Lena emerged from her coma.  Among her first words were “Read to me.”  And so they did, night and day, until little Lena recovered. — Walking on Water, p. 184-186.

God’s favor shines down on us in a forgotten photograph, a quote from another time, and the prayers of others.  The little things that make a big difference and remind us of how much God loves us.

“And Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.”