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Jan 01 2012

Creative Maladjustment, Divine Joy

Luke 2:41-52
Romans 12:1-2

Confirmands are among my favorite theologians. Since we are “between” Confirmation Classes this year, I have been recalling and appreciating my learning from classes in the past. “Theology” is an academic term, but for each of us our concept of God is deeply personal and essentially formative. How each of thinks about God and relates to God has an enormous impact on the experience of our lives.

One year, in the wake of Christmas, the Confirmation Class and I examined the story of twelve year old Jesus among the teachers in the Temple at Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-52). This is the famous text where Jesus accompanies his family to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, but when they head home to Galilee he remains behind. When his parents return to the city, looking for him, they find him in the Temple with the teachers.

“So Jesus sinned?”, one of our sensitive young people surmised. We explored further. “Well, he wasn’t obedient to his parents. Didn’t he break the commandment of honoring your father and mother?” Now those are discerning questions, and deeply relevant questions for young, growing people of faith. I could have answered, “Our doctrine says that Jesus is without sin”, which may be true but isn’t a terribly helpful answer for an inquiring confirmand, nor is it a response that really applies to their life! I’m not sure it would be all that much more helpful for a fifty year old considering the same things.

I listened carefully, and what I thought I heard was a kind of identification with Jesus, an affirmation that here is a Jesus who is really is “like us”, in communion with young people. After all, to be able to assert, “Jesus understands me”, is an incredibly hopeful development no matter what age we are!

We went back and looked at story again. We read that Jesus’ family went to the festival as “was customary”. When they left he didn’t leave; the experience wasn’t over for him. A modern translation: His parents went home from church to have lunch but young Jesus stayed behind, hungry to learn more. “Where did he go?”, I asked; “What did he do?”

We found that he engaged the teachers in dialogue. He listened carefully. He asked good questions that led to further exploration and learning – for everyone! When his parents found him after three days, and his mother berated him, he said, essentially, “Why would it take you three days to find me? Don’t you know me well enough to know I’d be here?”

As a one-time teen and a parent myself, the story always leaves me smiling. “Are there ever times where you are growing and developing, and your parents don’t understand yet?”, I asked the confirmands. All responded in the affirmative.

So the next week I suggested: “What if we understand sin as being outside the will of God? Do you think Jesus was outside the will of God?” This led to formulating some very important questions for further discussion:

  • Is breaking out of routine and custom necessarily sinful, or might it sometimes be God’s will?
  • Is moving toward God’s new order, the kingdom, bad because it disrupts the present order?
  • Is it possible that Jesus, even in his youth, is already moving more deeply into an intentional faith life than that which his parents practice? Jesus is already “lost in his love of God”. Might that be good for them, too? After all, Luke says that Mary winds up cherishing this experience!
  • The truth of the gospel is that when any one of us is set free by the gracious love of God, it has implications for all our lives!

“Keep identifying with Jesus”, I told the young people. That’s what Christians are called to do!

In the same spirit, the Apostle Paul wrote these pastoral words to a growing church: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God … what is good and well pleasing and whole.” – Romans 12:1-2. The pastor and prophet Martin Luther King, Jr., preached classic sermons on that passage. Dr. King used to say that God inspires us to a “creative maladjustment”:

“Everywhere and at all times, the love ethic of Jesus is a radiant light revealing the ugliness of any stale conformity. A Christian is called upon not to be a thermometer conforming to the temperature of society, but they must be like a thermostat serving to transform the temperature of their society.” (or, I might add, a faith community).

So young Jesus may not have been rigidly obedient but may have yet been “within the will of God”. His parents were not wrong to give expression to their anxiety-ridden love but they also needed to accompany their boy on these growth journeys—together – where everyone is touched, changed.

Which takes me back to the confirmands’ explorations. When I asked them to reflect personally, a few of them noted that “God and Jesus aren’t perfect”. Once again, not so much a negative statement as a discerning one. I heard them saying: “God and Jesus are not inaccessible; they are not separate from us”. Amen!

To those who would be troubled that young people wouldn’t think Jesus was “perfect,” consider this:

Because our human concepts of perfection are almost always about perceived flawlessness (or the myth thereof), our propensity is to cover over our perceived flaws and our submersion of pain and struggle as though such things are shameful. God often looks at that which we are ashamed of and says, “Let me touch that”. He so often calls us from the shadows, with our bruises and blemishes and says, “You’re beautiful”. In the NT, the word translated “perfect” in Matthew 5 and Romans 12 doesn’t mean flawlessness. It means completion. It means wholeness. “Be whole as your heavenly Father is whole.” – Matthew 5:48. Complete in the love of God!

So the twelve year old boy who once astounded those in the Jerusalem Temple later returns as a 30 year old adult to the Nazareth synagogue where he was once confirmation age. All that listening, those inspired, well-formed questions, and that dialogue have come fruition: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me …” Into the brutality of pigeonholing, into every diminishment of stale conformity, Jesus’ “creative maladjustment” shines the radiant light of God’s love, and he changes the temperature of life in the faith community. He comes for us: young, old, in between. And we have young people who receive! God’s creative maladjustment is truly joy divine.

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