27 December 2009

Growing Before God

1 Samuel 2:18-20,26 & Luke 2: 41-52

First Sunday After Christmas/ 27th December 2009

This story from 1 Samuel is inextricably linked to the gospel reading for this Sunday in Christmastide. The theological themes in 1 Samuel are extended in Luke 2. When Luke wrote his account of Jesus in the temple, he had this story from 1 Samuel in mind. Both texts in both testaments coalesce around the experience of change and growth – the necessity of change and growth.

First to Samuel. Samuel’s development as a priest took place within the temple, a priest who embarked upon a new venture of faith and politics that eventually reformed temple practice. Samuel’s life, here his early life, is lived out within the wider context of God’s providential care and direction. Samuel doesn’t belong to himself. He belongs to God. Samuel’s destiny is in God’s hand and he will be used for God’s purpose to bring about change and reform.

Twice, in verse 21 and again in verse 26, we find similar statements that reinforce a significant theological claim. Of course the boy Samuel eventually grew up into a man, but the growth he experienced was “in the presence of Yahweh.” In his notes on this text, John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of Methodism, stressed that Samuel, “Grew – Not only in age and stature; but especially in wisdom and goodness. Before the Lord – Not only before men, who might be deceived,” Wesley wrote,” but in the presence and judgment of the all-seeing God.” (1) It is one thing to grow naturally into adulthood and quite another to develop to maturity in the presence of God, so that God’s wisdom and strength fully inform the process and the goal of that growth.

It’s perhaps easy to overlook these two verses as throw-away lines, stating the obvious. Except that it is this idea of growing up in the presence of God – and the difference it makes in the formation of one’s identity, destiny, and purpose – that Luke chooses to use in his brief, although significant, telling of Jesus’ early development. Luke uses the language of 2.40, “The child grew and become strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” – and then again after the temple scene in 2.52. Although the NRSV uses the world “strength” in v. 40, “vigor” is probably more accurate. Jesus’ growth was vigorous not only in the sense of physical strength, but also in terms of possessing considerable vitality, force, and dynamism.

By quoting the description of Samuel’s growth in the temple within the account of Jesus’ development in and around the temple, Luke sees in Jesus a priestly role. This is important for Luke. He lifts up the priestly role of Jesus. The role of a priest is to mediate the presence of God. The priest goes goes before God on behalf of God’s people. The authority Jesus will later fully claim for himself is dependent upon the time spent as a child growing in vigor, wisdom, and before both divine and human favor. Just as Samuel learned through obedience and training, so, too, does Jesus grow in maturity through a process of obedience, not to Mary, nor to Joseph, but to God. Jesus’ life does not belong to himself. It belongs to God.
Samuel was not born knowing all that he needed to be and do as a priest.

Similarly, Jesus, although fully divine was also fully human and therefore grew progressing through every stage of the life-cycle, the stages we will all progress through (Lord willing). The same eight stages of developmental psychologist Erik Erikson (1902-1994) famously identified, starting with infancy, childhood, adulthood, to old age. (2) Here human development is linked with divine or theological development or awareness in Jesus. Again, it’s easy to overlook this, but this text leads us to pose an important question, Is there something theological, divine about human development? (3) What does human development, from infancy to old age, say about God? What does it mean for a human being to grow from infancy to old age in the presence of God? For what? Why were we born? For what purpose? What is the purpose of our lives?

It’s of the utmost significance that we see in Jesus’ life, from infancy through adolescence into adulthood, the growth of a human being within the presence of God. Granted, we don’t know much about his childhood or his adolescence – but we know he was born. He didn’t just arrive on the scene as an adult. He’s the same human being whose existence – born among us, full of grace and truth, who took on flesh – whose life was given to redeem humanity, not only mature adults, but through a redemptive process that has the power to bring healing to every stage of human development. I like to view Jesus’ life – from his birth through his death and resurrection – as a kind of template paced over our lives, his story over our stories, his life touching our lives at every stage of existence. Our lives then have the capacity to become sermons that proclaim the glory of God – like Jesus. Yes, Jesus was unique, but Jesus came to show us what our life can be, what we can become, the kind of people we can be through him. The early church father, Irenaeus (c.115-190) said, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” The life of Jesus in our lives has the capacity to make us more humane and human, more fully alive.

One of the leading theologians of the twentieth century was Thomas F. Torrance (1913-2007). (I had occasion to meet him two and corresponded with him briefly for a time. His son, Iain Torrance, is now president of Princeton Theological Seminary). T. F. Torrance makes this point in one of his many reflections on the incarnation, particularly through a moving interpretation of Luke 2:52, Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years.” Obedient as he was through his life, Jesus had to learn obedience to God in order to achieve reconciliation for humanity with God. As the Son of Adam he was “born in our alienation, our God-forsakeness and darkness, and grew up within our bondage and ignorance, so that he had to beat his way forward blow by blow, as St. Luke puts it, growing in wisdom, growing in grace, before God as well as before man.” It is Jesus as priest who “beat[s] his way forward” on our behalf, through every step along the way of human growth, offering his obedience and redeemed humanity up to God. Torrance wrote, “[Jesus] learned obedience by the things he suffered, for that obedience from within our alienated humanity was a struggle with our sin and temptation; it had to be fought out with strong crying and tears and achieved in desperate anguish and weakness…. Through the whole course of his life he bent the will of man in perfect submission to the will of God,…and offered a perfect obedience to the Father, that we might be redeemed and reconciled to him.” (4)

Although some of the images and language in Torrance’s theology might prove problematic to us and appear very abstract, this notion of Jesus redeeming humanity at every stage in its development with his life in order to present our lives back to God, reconciled and holy, is a very uplifting image. It elevates the idea that all of Jesus’ life was salvific for humanity, not only his death and resurrection. It’s the totality of Jesus’ life that saves.
As we sang here on Christmas Eve in the carol, Once in Royal David’s City, “He is our childhood pattern.” He is the pattern of our lives.

Yes, we know that Jesus was born to die, as the carols teach us. We often tell the Christmas story in such a way that we tend to think that Jesus was born only to die. Yes, we should not forget the cross, the destiny of the baby born in a manger. But there have been theologians and traditions in the history of the church that have refused to focus only on the cross, that want us to see the meaning of his entire life (and I would agree with them). If God’s love and grace were revealed in the cross and an empty tomb, if we see God’s love there, then we must also see God’s love and grace in this baby and his childhood and adolescence and his adulthood. For all these, too, tell us something about God, about how God chooses to live and be born in the world. To see Jesus as infant, teenager, adult, say something of God, how God is linked to us as infant, teenager, adult. Every step of our lives matter to God because we see that they matter in Jesus.

The birth and life of Jesus says something about our lives – that our lives, how we grow, how we develop in the presence of God is of ultimate value to God. Incarnation – that God took on flesh, tells us something of the significance about our flesh, of our lives. Jesus grew in the Lord. So, too, we who are in him must grow in the Lord – growing in likeness, growing in faith, growing in witness, growing along our own unique journey (as Jesus’ journey was unique), growing in love. Changing, ever constantly changing, becoming the people we were created by God to be – growing in the presence of God.

In his work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the American author James Agee (1909-1955) wrote, “In every child who is born, under no matter what circumstances, and of no matter what parents, the potentiality of the human race is born again.” How much more for that child who “grew in the presence of Yahweh,” through whose life the world has been redeemed? To what extent is the potential of the human race born in you and me?


Photo: The Nativity Star, Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem - the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ.

1. John Wesley, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Wesley’s Notes on the Bible: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/notes.ii.x.iii.ii.html. Emphasis added.
2. Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society, second edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1963), 247ff.
3. See James E. Loder, The Logic of the Spirit: Human Development in Theological Perspective (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 27.
4. Thomas F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction (London: SCM Press, 1965), 132. Emphasis added.
5. Text by Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) and included in her Hymns for Little Children (1848).

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