“Affirming Our Identity”

~ Luke 2:41-52 ~

My first job after college was with an evangelistic youth ministry in Denver, CO, called “Youth for Christ.” Billy Graham was very much involved with starting this organization in the late 40’s. I worked in the Youth Guidance program, in which teens on probation were referred to me through the juvenile court system. I was a street worker in the housing projects and my particular focus was a group of paint-sniffers. For three years, I worked with about a dozen hardcore paint-sniffers. Now, for the uninitiated amongst you, paint sniffing is spraying highly toxic paint – gold, silver and copper were the paints of choice – onto a rag and holding the rag over your face you breathe in. They did this every chance they could – all day, every day. My job was to dissuade them from doing this, in the name of Jesus.

Of course, it didn’t help that one time I decided to engage them in a canoe-building project. It turns out, however, that the resin used in making fiberglass canoes is highly toxic. They all enjoyed that project way too much. But I digress.

The main reason I mention this youth ministry is to tell you about the other division of Youth for Christ called Campus Life. This was the mostly suburban high school on-campus program (Yes, they actually were allowed to have bible clubs on campus back then!). The ministry philosophy of Campus Life was “The Balanced Life” – to strive to develop a mental, physical, social, and spiritual balance in the life of a Christian teen. The bible verse this was based on is from our gospel lesson today, Luke 2:52: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years (or stature), and in divine and human favor.” So, “wisdom” = mental development, “stature” = physical development, “divine favor” = spiritual development, and “human favor” = social development. You know what, that’s not a bad philosophy when you get right down to it. Paying attention to all of those things makes for a healthy, balanced life. Parents could do worse in desiring that for their kids (or grandkids, in my case). We’ll get back to this a bit later.

This “balanced-life” statement about Jesus comes at the conclusion of a rather odd, or should I say out of place, vignette about Jesus as a child. It is the only place in the bible where Jesus’ childhood is discussed. This passage is not really part of the birth narrative. Indeed, Luke concludes his birth story back in verse 40 with almost the same words as he ends this story: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” This story about Jesus in the temple appears to be an add-on in Luke’s gospel, sort of a “by the way, let me tell you one more story before we get to the important stuff” kind of story. Ah! But it’s not just an add-on. Luke has a very important point to make in the telling of this story. It’s a point that we all would do well to pay heed.

What is the important point Luke wants us to get? One of the central characteristics of Luke’s gospel (and Matthew, for that matter, but not so much Mark) is to make it abundantly clear from the very beginning the Christological nature of Jesus, that Jesus is God’s son. This is what the birth narratives are all about. The babe born in Bethlehem is the Messiah, the Son of God. That is what this story of Jesus in the temple is about as well.

Now we could delve into all the details of this story. The significance of going to Jerusalem for Passover. How is that his parents lost him (was child protection services called)? Why did it take them three days to find him? Why were Jesus’ parental units so exasperated? What did Jesus say that so amazed the elders? Why was Mary surprised, given everything that happened to her at his birth? Through the centuries, much has been said about all these details.

However, I want to get to the Luke’s primary purpose in telling this story. He does this with one detail: Jesus was twelve years old. He was right on the cusp of adulthood. Luke wants the reader to know that early in Jesus’ life, he knew. He knew to whom he belonged. He knew who he was. He confirmed his identity. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” says the 12-year-old Jesus.

Now the skeptical among us might say, “O come on, really?” Did he really know that at the age of twelve? What about all the soul-searching we see Jesus doing later in the gospels. What about…and we could go on and on. However, this isn’t really about our skeptical questions. This is about what Luke wants us, his readers, to know about Jesus and his mission. Luke wants us to get the message, loud and clear, that Jesus knew who he was – or whose he was!

One of the developmental tasks of childhood, of “teenhood,” of young adulthood is discovering and affirming one’s identity. Many things go into the development of that identity – family, a sense of vocation, personal interests, personal philosophy, dreams and ideals, religious experience. For Jesus, he affirmed his identity in his relationship to God.

How much of your identity is affirmed in your relationship to God? Now you might say, “That’s not fair. Jesus was God’s son. Of course his identity was centered on God.” Nevertheless, I press the question: How much of our identity is affirmed in our relationship to God? Is your faith in God merely a peripheral matter? Or does it shape your life in some profound way? Is religion for you an add-on to your life – something you do if you can fit it in, or need forgiveness, or need help, or do out of obligation? Or do you dare live a life that emerges out of the heart of God? Can we affirm our identity in God?

This is a risky course. Sometimes, maybe often, God’s claim on us will stand in tension or open conflict with the other stuff of our lives – with the desire for social acceptance, or economic security, or loyalty to family, or any number of worthy ideals. Sometimes the hard decisions of life are not between the obvious right and wrong, but of those that call for us to choose among seemingly equal worthy goals.

The “balanced life” philosophy of my Youth for Christ experience appears, on the surface, to be about dividing time equally between four areas – ¼ time for mental, ¼ time for physical, ¼ time for social, and ¼ time for spiritual. But of course, life doesn’t divide that neatly. Although if our children, let alone we adults, learned to devote ¼ of our time to spiritual things that would really be something. But I don’t think this is really about balancing out our time. It is about letting all of our life – mental, physical, social, and religious flow out of a basic identity centered on God. If we can learn (through spiritual disciplines even) to live out of the grateful acceptance of God’s redemptive work in us than all the other stuff will fall into place. A commitment to God that is born of the experience of God’s grace and love makes for a very healthy, balanced life. A life so lived can lead one into very unexpected places (hence the risk) but it is a high-reward risk.

Which brings me back to my charges back in the housing projects: I worked with these guys for three years. I took them on wilderness backpack trips, canoe trips (yes; on the very ones we built), retreats, camps. I help them learn how to behave in public places (a formidable task. You can ask Linda about the time I had to face-down a knife-wielding kid at an ice-skating rink), and the never-ending attempt to wean them off the paint. I’d like to say I accomplished my task; that they turned out to be model citizens. I’d like to say they all had a come-to-Jesus moment and kicked their habits. I’d like to say they stayed out of trouble. But that was not to be. Some might look at those three years and say, “What a waste of time!” Believe me. It sometimes felt that way.

But then there was Joe. Joe loved camping, he loved to swim, he loved adventure. Unfortunately at the age of 18, due to all the paint he had sniffed over the years, his brain was severely under developed. Too many brain cells destroyed. He was like a 12-year-old in an 18-year-old body. But many years after I left the program, one day I encountered Joe on the street. He was still living in the housing projects. He’d had a kid by now, but he was holding down a job, had stayed out of jail. He was really excited to see me because he wanted to tell me how much he appreciated all that I had done for him and his friends, all now scattered. He assured me that he took to heart some of the things I’d taught them, while also telling me that it was a hopeless cause to get them to stop sniffing paint. But he told me he wasn’t sniffing anymore. He had a son to watch over now and he had to keep his job. “Thank you, Mr. Brown, for spending time with me,” he said as we parted.

Joe didn’t have much of a chance to live a “balanced life.” The circumstances of life were too much against him. We all have circumstances in life that work against us achieving perfect balance, albeit maybe not to the extent that Joe faced. We can bemoan how life’s circumstances seem to conspire against us. But if we take seriously this enterprise of following Jesus, maybe we should take seriously the affirmation of his identity in his Father. It will serve us well to affirm our identity continually, intentionally in the ever-present grace and love of God. That truly is a “balanced life.” Amen.

 

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