Sermon Briefs: Luke 2:41-52
F. W. Robertson--"Robertson of Brighton"--preached a sermon on this passage on the first Sunday of the New Year in 1853 which could be preached today for its depth of insight and its relevance to the human situation. His subject was The Early Development of Jesus1, and he almost sounds like a process theologian!
Robertson's text--which he expounds faithfully--is verse 40. This verse precedes our lectionary passage, but it might well be included as a summary of the boy-in-the-temple incident.
Robertson begins by reminding us that the boy grew. "In Christ the divine and human blended.. .There was in him the divine which remained fixed; the human which was constantly developing."
"The Eternal Son had a human and progressive childhood. Happy the child who is happy to be and content to be what God meant it to be--a child while childhood lasts." Then the preacher deplores the tendency to rush growth in "our [their] age of stimulus and high pressure...we require results produced at once. The folio of patient years is replaced by the pamphlet that stirs men's curiosity today, and tomorrow is forgotten." (Written in 1853!)
Robertson fills a simple outline with profound insights. The three-point outline is: He grew in strength, in wisdom, in grace.
In strength: This is power of will and power of self-restraint. These require strong feelings and strong command over them. "You must measure the strength of a man by the power of the feelings which he subdues, not by the power of those which subdue him." Robertson sees the evidence of Jesus' strength in the fact that he waited patiently for 30 years before he began his work, despite all that must have roused his indignation.
In wisdom: Wisdom is not the same thing as information or talent. Jesus acquired wisdom by the habit of inquiry and by the collision of mind with other minds. Not that those pedants with whom he debated in the temple that day contributed much to his understanding, but the conversation "fertilized" his mind.
In grace: This was a) the exchange of an earthly for a heavenly home; b) of an earthly for a heavenly parent, and the reconciliation of domestic duties.
The temple was now his new home, and of his Father's house he would later say it has many mansions, or rooms. The heavenly Father was now his new parent. Domestic duties, to be at first put in their proper place, are then made holy.
The first step in spirituality, says Robertson, is "to get a distaste for common duties," by which he means creeds, ceremonies, services, "the conventional arrangements of society." "But the last and highest step in spirituality is made in feeling these common duties again to be divine and holy." Robertson calls this in a delightful phrase "the second childhood of Christian life" when through the eyes of mature faith we have childlike love and childlike wonder and childlike obedience.
William Sloane Coffin preached on this passage at Riverside Church in New York City under the title Mary and Jesus.2 It was a Mother's Day sermon, and the preacher dealt with three instances of Jesus being with his mother that are recorded in the gospels. The time in the temple was the first.
Coffin notes that Mary and Joseph gave their son independence that day, but after three days of looking for him they were justifiably anxious. When this young adolescent replies with what could have offended them, Mary did not rebuke him further but "kept all these things in her heart." Coffin comments: "How rare is the person who realizes that you can learn more if you don't try to understand too soon." He concludes from this episode that "mother and son are off to a good start."
The second episode is Matthew 12, where Jesus asks "Who is my mother?" and the third one, of course, is the scene at the cross where Jesus turns his mother over to the care of John.
Coffin sees the Matthew 12 episode as a clear example of the family tensions that take place when a son or daughter must defy a protective parent in order to be obedient to his/her higher vision. Then, in commending Mary to John, "Jesus includes her in his mission, and thereby resolves the conflict between his loyalty to her and his loyalty to God."
There at the cross, says Coffin, "what [Mary] had suspected in the beginning and doubted in the middle, she finally saw at the end. Clearly, her son had reached her, she is a new person. She is standing, we read, not fainting at the foot of the cross; in distress perhaps too deep for tears, but also in all the legitimate pride of motherhood.... [There] Mary has to suffer, and then to translate her suffering into the pangs of childbirth that will result in a new and larger family."
George Laird Hunt
1. F. W. Robertson, Sermons (Harper and Bros.). No copyright date, but the sermons were preached at Brighton, England, from August 15, 1853. We were told in seminary that Robertson was the most influential preacher in the English-speaking world. Whether or not that is true, he is certainly one of the most stimulating. 2. William Sloan Coffin, Living the Truth in a World of Illusion (Harper and Row, 1965), pp. 75-80.