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When You're Small
December 28, 1997

LUKE 2:41-52

I suspect most of us have forgotten what the world looks like to those who are small. Wouldn't it be interesting to video from the perspective of a four-year-old. If you held the camera at the eye level of a four-year-old, what would you see? Legs, knees. I wonder what an adult looks like to a child who is looking up. Sees the tummy, perhaps the chin. Have you forgotten what it's like to be small, vulnerable, powerless; although some four-year-olds have a great deal of power!

In the Scripture lesson this morning, Jesus was 12-years-old. 12-year-olds often feel small, and can't wait until they are "grown-up" teenagers. They feel small, vulnerable, and at the mercy of their elders. School can be an intimidating experience for some. A successful banker confessed how he becomes physically sick, nauseated, whenever he enters a school building. He cannot even attend the PTA meetings at his child's school, so traumatized is he by his childhood experiences of school. He says, "Those were the most miserable memories of my life. I think I've spent most of my life getting over what happened to me in a typical day of school." Another boy was sent home one day with a note pinned to his coat, "Thomas is too dumb to learn. School is a waste for him." His name was Thomas Alva Edison!

When I was twelve, I loved school. I didn't feel small, I felt big. But, when I went away to the University of Minnesota, that was a different story. Coming from a small town rural school where there were 30 in my graduating class, I was overwhelmed by the 30,000 students at the University of Minnesota. I did all right with my grades, and I made one friend, but I was like a duck out of water. In high school I was important. As a University freshman, I was small, vulnerable, and powerless. I was studying to be a Music and English teacher, but how humiliating when I didn't pass the audition to be in the Marching Band. Then, when the music theory professor played a few notes on the piano, and said, "Write them down," I realized I didn't have the ear to be a musician. I felt small and lost.

But, through it all, I heard God's call to go into the ministry. After that first year, I transferred to Hamline University, the small Methodist college in St. Paul with 1,000 students (at that time), and there I met my future wife. The District Superintendent appointed me to pastor two rural churches. I had a wonderful time preaching, going to school, and dating Ellie! After graduation I went to Japan as a short-term missionary where I taught English, which was my original goal. I played organ in the church, the old-fashioned kind which I pumped with my feet, and I sang, and still sing, so I get to do music. After three years, I returned home, married Ellie, went to seminary, and here I am!

Perhaps you have never been intimidated by school, but I suspect there have been other times when you have felt small, vulnerable, and powerless. When applying for a job, worrying whether you are filling out the job application correctly and impressing them with your interview, don't you feel small? Going into surgery is another of those times when you feel small-- where you are put to sleep, you are powerless, and you literally turn your body over to the surgeons in whom you put complete trust. I waited with Gene and Kathleen Tuft before his surgery. When they rolled in the gurney to take him, they asked, "Are you Mr. Tuft?" Gene pointed to me and said, "Take him!"

Isn't it good news to realize that even Jesus was small? The ancient world, with all its emphasis on thrones, emperor worship, and power, had difficulty comprehending and accepting the biblical assertion that God chose to come into the world small and vulnerable. Imagine! The Messiah, the Savior of the world was born as a helpless, vulnerable baby. How fragile is an infant, how completely the infant's life depends on the mercy and strength of parents. How tragic when a little one is abused, beaten, malnourished. God took a chance with Mary. God risked the incarnation on two human beings-- Mary and Joseph. What a chance God took! God took the risk to show how all of us, including Jesus, have humble origins; how we are all small, vulnerable and powerless

We know nothing of Jesus' childhood, except for the incident we heard read in the Scripture lesson. When the church decided, with guidance and inspiration by the Holy Spirit, what documents would be preserved in what we call the New Testament, they rejected several fanciful accounts about Jesus' childhood. For example, one tradition held that Jesus as a child made birds out of clay, and then threw them in the air where they miraculously came to life, and flew away. Our ancestors in the faith rejected such fairy tales because they believed that Jesus was a human like us, not some out-of-this-world extra-terrestrial superman. Jesus was a child like all children-- small, vulnerable and at the mercy of adults.

What we do know about Jesus' childhood is the delightful story of Jesus in the temple. His parents took him to Jerusalem, quite a trek from Nazareth in those days, to celebrate the Passover. It doesn't say, but some feel the trip had particular significance for Jesus, because at the age of twelve, a Jewish boy celebrates his bar mitzvah, a rite of passage. Perhaps they traveled to the temple to celebrate his bar mitzvah which would have been a big occasion for Jesus.

Some Jewish parents are still able to celebrate their son's bar mitzvah in Jerusalem. When I was in the holy land, I witnessed several bar mitzvahs. There is no Jewish temple there now, because the Muslims have erected a magnificent temple on the site. Jews gather outside at what is called the Western Wall or the Wailing Wall because of all the prayers that are prayed, and tears that are shed there. The Western Wall is what is left of a retaining wall that Herod the Great built in order to keep the hill from eroding under the temple. I saw several families come with baskets of goodies under their arms. The honored boy and the men gathered on one side of a partition which separates women from men. There they ate cake and had a great time. The mother and other women had their own party on their side, but from time to time would peek over the partition to see how the boy was doing.

Jesus' family was traveling with others in a caravan, probably for safety as well as social reasons. Mary and Joseph assumed Jesus was with his friends, but when they stopped at the end of the first day to make camp, Jesus was nowhere to be found. They returned to Jerusalem and after three days, found Jesus in the temple, sitting with the teachers, asking questions, and amazing them with his understanding. Mary was fit to be tied, and read him the riot act. Like a 12-year-old, Jesus gave her a smart answer, "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" Luke gives Jesus, however, the credit for meaning something significant rather than a smart-alec answer. Luke says the parents did not understand him. Mary treasured it in her heart. Luke does make it clear that Jesus went home with his parents to Nazareth, and thereafter "was obedient to them."

This is a story about a small boy from a poor, uneducated family, standing before the scholars in the temple, toe-to-toe with them, instructing rather than being instructed by them. Can you see what's happening from where you sit? Many of you are too big to see it clearly, but if you're small, I think you can see and understand. This story belongs with the other stories that small children like to hear and tell-- how Jack outsmarts the giant, Little Red Riding Hood puts one over on the wolf, little David gets the best of great big Goliath, and 12-year-old Jesus confounds the learned scholars, the big people. "You tell 'em, Jesus!"

This is a story to be told with delight by small people-- those who do not do well in math, or on their SATs, those who have trouble reading, those who have difficulty filling out forms, those who don't get in the band or make the team, those who feel small, vulnerable, powerless, at the mercy of big people. This is an electrifying story for all those who feel small because it reminds us whose side God is on. God's advent is astonishing. Mary sang, "God is going to bring down the proud and lift up the lowly," and here is a 12-year-old boy demonstrating the promise. Right before our eyes.

In God's eyes, it's a whole new world, an upside down world. Deliverance is at hand for those who are small. Those at the bottom get to go to the top. The last shall be first. Young Jesus impresses the learned scholars. And you, even when you're small, you are made by God, loved by Jesus, and powered by the Holy Spirit. Take Philippians 4:13 to heart. Memorize it. Let it fill you with confidence. "I can do all things through him who strengthens me," even, when you're small!

© 1997 Douglas I. Norris