Jim Zazzera, Faith Presbyterian Church
As many of you know, I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church. Though I left that tradition in my college years, I have fond memories of my experience there. I remember that I served as an altar boy and lit candle like our acolytes do, I can think of how I appreciated the beauty of the sanctuaries in which I sat, and I certainly learned about faith through the liturgy and worship. However, one of the things that I did not find helpful was the way we as children were taught about faith.
As we grew in understanding of God and church, we were not encouraged to question and we were not encouraged to wonder. There were questions, of course – but these questions always had specific correct answers. Here are some examples from the catechism, the question/answer book we used to learn about faith:
Q. Who is God?
A. God is the Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things.
Q. What is man?
A. Man is a creature composed of body and soul, and made to the image and likeness of God.
Q. Why did God make you?
A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.
Q. What must we do to save our souls?
A. To save our souls, we must worship God by faith, hope, and charity;
that is, we must believe in Him, hope in Him, and love Him with all our heart.
Q. How shall we know the things which we are to believe?
A. We shall know the things which we are to believe from the Catholic Church,
through which God speaks to us.
Now, these are not bad questions and answers, and many of us take this same approach today in Catholic, Protestant, and OrthodoxChurches. But I am struck by how different this is from what we do here in our congregation.
Some of you may know, for our youngest children we have a program in our Sunday school called “Godly Play.” There are many aspects of the work the teachers do with the children there, but there is one that strikes me as most profound and important.
First, a Bible story is told by the teacher with the use of small figures and symbols. Then, after the story, the children are invited to think and talk about the story. They are not told what the story is supposed to mean for them, but they are encouraged to ask “wondering” questions.
Children might say things like:
I wonder why Jesus was born in a stable?
I wonder why why a shepherd got to hear angels singing?
I wonder why I have never heard angels singing?
I wonder how God could be a baby?
Children are not asked to parrot perfect answers to specific questions, but to “wonder” about what is going on in the story, to think for themselves about what God might be doing. This approach to children and faith requires a radical trust in God’s Spirit.
One preacher, a few years ago, spent some time asking some of the adults in his church to do a similar kind of wondering about the passage you have just heard. He asked them to think about the story of Jesus as a young boy in the temple. He called it a “Bible Story Jam” and asked people to simply “enter the story” and offer their own thoughts. Let me show you some of what they said…
Link For Video: https://vimeo.com/55045458
Maybe this sounds a little like your own life group…with lots of thoughts from lots of different perspectives. I find the approach helpful in exploring any scripture.
The passage discussed is an interesting and challenging passage, one that only appears in the Gospel of Luke. It is the only story we have about Jesus’ childhood after his birth and infancy. I find myself wondering why it is even here, and what it is teaching me. Like the people in the we just listened to, I wonder about how this all happened how Jesus could get lost for three days, how his parents must have felt, and how as a child he could command the attention of these elders, these teachers, in the temple.
Yet my favorite verse in the whole text is what appears as the story comes to an end:
Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
It is actually quite similar to a passage that appears right after Jesus’ birth is announced by angels to the shepherds in a field in Bethlehem:
So [the shepherds] went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
In both instances related to Jesus—one a miraculous announcement, one a simple personal discovery—Mary responds by “treasuring” and “pondering” things in her heart.
We are not told here that Mary “proclaims” or “understands” but that she “treasures” and “ponders.” She knows that what she is seeing and hearing is important, but she does not fully understand what it all means, so she takes time to reflect, to think, to wonder, to ponder, and to treasure…
Today’s story is actually quite simple, she and Joseph are seeing the child Jesus begin to come into his identity as the Son of God. Until this point in the gospel, only other people—shepherds, angels, Simeon and Anna in the Temple—affirmed the real purpose and direction of Jesus’ life. Only others proclaimed Jesus’ identity.
But in this story, Jesus begins to assert his self understanding. After a frantic search for him, Mary says to Jesus, “your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety!” Here the word “father” refers to Joseph. But Jesus responds, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Here in this text, “Father” means God.
Scripture tells us “[Mary & Joseph] did not understand what [Jesus] said to them.” His own parents did not understand. But in the end, Mary had a sense that something important had just happened. So Mary treasured and pondered.
It strikes me that this is what we are all called to do in light of our faith. We are invited to imitate Mary in her response to the mystery of Jesus’ life. We are invited to wonder. We are invited to ponder. We are invited to treasure.
I like how Quinn Vaughn, one of Faith’s former pastors, put it in a sermon she wrote a few years ago. Quinn reflects on how Mary responds to the greeting by the angel Gabriel when he came to announce that Mary would bear the Christ child. Mary “ponders what sort of greeting this might be…” She “ponders” not to seek a specific answer but to reflect on the meaning of God’s work in her life.
Quinn puts it this way:
Pondering is at the heart of our Christian vocation.…When we ponder Gabriel’s words to Mary and “what sort of greeting this might be,” we are invited by Luke to join in her vocation – the work of pondering a confrontation with the mysterious plan of God embodied in Jesus. We have been given the license to ponder.
I love that—we have a “license to ponder.” An invitation to wonder. An encouragement to treasure. Mary, who in some ways could be considered the first disciple, leads us modern day disciples in a stance of openness to what God wants to say. Mary leads us in pondering.
There is something else about our faith that leads me to think that pondering and wondering is an important stance for those who follow Jesus. You see, in the scriptures we Christians read, we have many kinds of literature. We have poetry, we have law, and we have wise sayings. But more than anything—we have story. And story always invites us to reflect and wonder. Story—by its very design—invites us in.
Story asks us to think what the characters think, to feel what the characters feel, to struggle as the characters struggle, to experience some small part of what the characters experience. Story invites us to wonder, to ponder.
Think about today’s story. Can’t you identify with the emotions of Mary and Joseph? Don’t you wonder what Jesus said to impress the elders in the temple? Parents, haven’t your own children done things that totally puzzled you? Children, don’t you think your parents worry about you WAY too much? If you ask any of these questions, you are entering the story and perhaps beginning to experience something God wants you to know.
There are other forms of writing in scripture that are very important to our faith. But the Bible is dominated by story. There is precious law in scripture, but that often takes us into unhelpful debate. There are letters, but they sometimes gets us stuck in analysis. But stories, I think, encourage us to ponder.
Jesus didn’t write us a letter. Jesus didn’t craft a series of laws. But Jesus stands as the central character of the most important story ever told. And we will never exhaust the possibilities to ponder in that story. We will never run out of things to explore. We will never cease to wonder.
In line with what I have been sharing, let me end by let me leaving you something to ponder. Something that is reflected in this story. Something that we sing about at this time of year.
Why did God come to us in the form of a child? Why did God come to us in human being?
This is a question the church has considered for centuries. It is also a fundamental affirmation of what we believe. God entered our humanity. It is the major theme of this season.
There are so many ways God could communicate, with us why did God come to us as a human?
So I wonder…I wonder why God became weak? I wonder why God entered our pain? I wonder why Jesus came as a helpless child? I wonder why he grew up with imperfect parents in a backwater town? I wonder how any of this makes the work of God more effective?
Think about it. God invites us to wonder. God invites us to ponder. God invites us to treasure.
Next Step Questions
1. Who were the first ones to teach you about the Christian faith? Were you encouraged to ask questions? Why or why not?
2. Re-read the passage from Luke 2:41—52 . What stands out here to you? What questions emerge for you?
3. This story about Jesus only appears in the Gospel of Luke. Outside of Jesus’ birth and infancy, it is really the only story we have about Jesus’ childhood. Why do you think Luke included this story? What do you think God wants us to learn here?
4. This is a very human story about Jesus. How do you think each of the characters in the story are feeling and reacting? What does this teach us about Jesus’ humanity?
5. In the sermon Jim said, “Laws often make us debate, stories encourage us to ponder.” Why do you think we have so many stories in the Bible? How do stories (like this one) help us grow in our faith and discipleship?
6. What aspect of the Christian faith do you ponder often? What things in our faith do you wonder about? What do you treasure?
7. One of the things the church has pondered over centuries is the affirmation that Jesus is both God and human. Why do you think it is important that Jesus was a human being? What questions arise for you around this affirmation?
8. What could we do in the life of our congregation to help you both wonder about and treasure your faith more?