Jesus Coming of Age
1 Kings 3
Luke 2:39 – 3:14; 3:21–22
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.
1 Timothy 4:6–16
What were you like when you were twelve? In what ways are you the same today? How have you changed?
We have only this one glimpse into Jesus’ childhood. Jesus was twelve, when boys came of age in ancient Jewish culture. He joined his family on their annual pilgrimage south to Jerusalem for the Passover holiday. This was a journey of over sixty miles – not a short trip on foot, maybe taking four or five days each way. This year, as at each Passover holiday, the Jewish people would celebrate the story of God liberating their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. Because the Romans now ruled over them, making them feel like slaves again, the holiday kept alive the hopes that a new Moses might arise among them and lead them to expel the Romans. Like every good holiday, then, this Passover was to be about both the past and the present.
People travelled to and from the Passover festival in large groups, so Mary and Joseph assumed that Jesus was among their fellow travellers when they began the long trek home. When Jesus couldn’t be found, they rushed back to Jerusalem, where they looked for him for three long days. Finally they came to the temple, and there Jesus sat, a twelve-year-old boy among the religious scholars and teachers. He was asking questions of them and answering questions they posed in return. Everyone was amazed at this young spiritual prodigy. He was like a modern-day Solomon, King David’s son who was famous for his wisdom.
His mother pulled him aside and gave him exactly the lecture you would expect. ‘Child!’ she began, as if to remind this young adolescent that he wasn’t grown up yet. ‘Why have you treated us like this? Listen! Your father and I have been worried sick. We’ve been looking everywhere for you!’ Jesus replied, ‘Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?’
The reply tells us a lot about Jesus. By the age of twelve, he saw God in tender, fatherly terms. He saw himself as God’s child. He was already deeply curious – demonstrated by his questions to the religious scholars. And he was deeply thoughtful – demonstrated by his wise answers to their questions. Like most parents of teenagers, of course, Mary and Joseph were completely baffled by his behaviour and his explanation of it. He went back to Nazareth with them, and the next eighteen years were summarised by Luke in these fourteen words: ‘Jesus matured in wisdom and years, and in favour with God and with people’ (CEB).
As Jesus was maturing in Nazareth, his relative John, son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, was coming of age back in Jerusalem. As the son of a priest, he would have lived the comfortable, privileged life of the upper classes. We would expect him to follow in his father’s footsteps at the temple in Jerusalem, offering sacrifices, officiating at festivals and performing ritual cleansings called baptisms.
Baptisms were essential, because pilgrims who came from distant lands to the temple were understood to be ‘unclean’ as a result of their contact with people of other religions and cultures. Several special baths had been constructed around the temple so that worshippers could ceremonially wash off that contamination and present themselves to God as ‘clean people’ again. It was another way to preserve religious identity during a time of occupation and domination by ‘unclean foreigners’.
Can you imagine how shocking it is for Zechariah’s son to burst onto the scene, preaching and performing baptisms – not in Jerusalem, but over eighty miles to the north and east? Can you imagine the disruption of him performing ritual cleansing – not in the private, holy baths near the temple, but in public, out in the countryside, along the banks of the River Jordan? Can you imagine the gossip about his choice to trade the luxurious robes of the priesthood for the rough garments of a beggar, and the high-class menu of Jerusalem for the subsistence fare of the wilderness? What would such actions mean?
John’s departure from both family and temple suggested that John was protesting against the religious establishment his father faithfully served. Jerusalem’s temple was not all it was held up to be, he would have been saying. A new kind of baptism – with a radical new meaning – was needed. Travelling to a special city and an opulent building could not make people clean and holy. What they needed most was not a change in location, but a change in orientation, a change in heart. People needed a different kind of cleanness – one that couldn’t come through a conventional ceremonial bath in a holy temple.
According to John, the identity that mattered most wasn’t one you could inherit through tribe, nationality or religion – as descendants of Abraham, for example. The identity that mattered most was one you created through your actions . . . by sharing your wealth, possessions and food with those in need, by refusing to participate in the corruption so common in government and business, by treating others fairly and respectfully, and by not being driven by greed. One word summarised John’s message: repent, which meant ‘rethink everything’, or ‘question your assumptions’, or ‘have a deep turnaround in your thinking and values’. His baptism of repentance symbolised being immersed in a flowing river of love, in solidarity not just with the clean, privileged, superior us – but with everyone, everywhere.
Like prophets of old, John issued a powerful warning: God would soon intervene to confront wrong and set things right, and the status quo would soon come to an end. Crowds started streaming out to the countryside to be baptised by John. His protest movement grew, and with it expectation and hope. Maybe John would be the longawaited liberator, the people whispered – like Moses and Joshua, leading people to freedom; like David, instituting a new reign and a new golden age. John quickly squashed those expectations. ‘I’m not the one you’re waiting for,’ he said. ‘I’m preparing the way for someone who is coming after me. He will really clean things up. He will bring the change we need.’
John kept thundering out his message of warning and hope, week after week, month after month. He dared to confront the powerful and name their hypocrisy. (Herod Antipas, the son of the Herod who tried to kill Jesus, couldn’t withstand the agitation of John’s protest movement, so he ultimately would have John arrested and, eventually, beheaded.)
Among the crowds coming to be baptised one day was a young man of about John’s age. By receiving John’s baptism, this young man identified himself with this growing protest movement in the Galilean countryside. As he came out of the water, people heard a sound, as if the sky was cracking open with a rumble of thunder. They saw something descending from the sky . . . it looked like a dove landing on his head. Some claimed to hear the voice of God saying, ‘You are my Son, whom I dearly love. In you I find pleasure’ (Mark 1:11, author’s paraphrase).
What Jesus had said about God at the age of twelve in the temple, God now echoed about Jesus at the age of thirty at the riverside: they shared a special parent-child relationship, a deep connection of love and joy. And in that relationship there was an invitation for us all, because Jesus taught that all of us could enter into that warm and secure parent-child relationship with God.
That dove is full of meaning as well. Jesus came, not under the sign of the lion or tiger, not under the sign of the bull or bear, not under the sign of the hawk or eagle or viper . . . but under the sign of the dove – a sign of peace and non-violence. Similarly, when John first saw Jesus, he didn’t say, ‘Behold the Lion of God, come to avenge our enemies,’ but rather, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’ To remove sin rather than get revenge for it – that was an agenda of peace indeed.
So now, Jesus had come of age and stepped onto the stage: a man with a dove-like spirit, a man with the gentleness of a lamb, a man of peace whose identity was rooted in this profound reality: God’s beloved child.
When we awaken within that deep relationship of mutual love and pleasure, we are ready to join in God’s peace movement today – an adventure of protest, hope and creative, non-violent, world-transforming change.
Meditate & Contemplate
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share the story of your baptism or some other initiation experience you’ve had.
3. How do you respond to this explanation of John the Baptist and baptism? In breaking with tradition, what kind of challenges do you think he encountered?
4. For children: When you think of a dove and a lamb, what do you think of?
5. Activate: This week, look for every chance to ‘grow in wisdom’ by listening, learning and asking questions.
6. Meditate: Imagine God asking you, ‘What one thing would you like me to do for you?’ As Solomon asked for wisdom, hold one request up to God in silence. Then receive God’s message to Jesus as a message to you by saying these words, silently or aloud, one time or several times: ‘[Your name], you are my child, whom I dearly love. In you I find pleasure.’ Finally, make these words your own: ‘I am [my name], your child, whom you dearly love. In me you find pleasure.’