Good Morning. It’s mid-January; snow is on the ground today, and it’s very cold. This week, The New York Times ran a little culture piece about January: it was about how, yes, there are many subjects that have become contentious to argue about; but it’s still pretty safe to have a spirited debate about whether you love or hate winter. On the minus side there is of course the cold, and with it the darkness, the salt and slush, the seasonal affective disorder and the challenges of being cooped up inside. But of course there are positives as well. The snow has its own beauty, even if you’re just looking at it through the window. Out there, kids are making snow angels and laughing their way down the sledriding hill—it always makes me smile that even the most sullen of teenagers seem to have an innate sense that helping a six year-old back up the hill is just kind of the right thing to do. Back at home a hot cup of cocoa and maybe a warm fire await.
But why am I telling you this? Well, it’s a simple example of something our Christian tradition means to help with. Life is full of good news and bad, triumphs and struggles, despair and hope, and we are constantly pushed and pulled between these things. And in many ways more significant than what to think about January, it can be hard to find your way. Faith is supposed to help us navigate through it and hold things together. You’ve probably heard that Christian theology describes Jesus as “fully human and fully divine.” I imagine some among you find that to be fascinating scholarship, and just as many think it sounds like pointless academic drivel. This morning I’m going to argue that the idea of Jesus Christ as human and divine actually has a practical component. It is supposed to help us explain and navigate the tension in the world between human limitation and divine hope. It’s not that humanity is all bad either; it’s that in thinking more deeply about these things, we have a chance to become more fully human and fully divine. And this morning, during our current series on Becoming Jesus, we’re going to look at a story from Jesus’ childhood and what it teaches us about being both human and divine.
The Bible story begins with a scenario familiar to many parents—it’s about a mom and dad who lose track of their kid. As the story goes, each year at the time of the Passover festival, Mary and Joseph travel to Jerusalem for the celebration. Jesus goes along. When he is 12 years-old, they make the trip per usual and on the way back they discover that Jesus is missing. Now, I know this sounds hard to believe or like really bad parenting. So consider for a moment how different childhood was just a generation or so ago. I remember age 12: I would leave the house after breakfast, basketball in hand, on foot or on a bike, unsure to whose backyard or woods I might be headed, no water bottle or snacks or money or cell phone in my pocket, with little likelihood that I would return before dinnertime. Many of you probably remember something similar. Imagine what the other Hyde Park parents would say in 2024.
So here we have Jesus and his family, on a journey from their home of Nazareth up to Jerusalem for the biggest Jewish festival of the year. Jesus enjoyed some independence. They would have traveled in a large caravan from their community, for the roads were not safe for small groups, but a village could travel together; everyone knew each other; and on the way back Mary says to Joseph, “where’s Jesus?” and we can imagine that Joseph answers, “oh, I’m sure he’s out in front with the Schwartzs,” and someone overhears and says, “Nah, they said he was in back, with the Bernsteins,” and when they discover that he’s in neither place, like a modern family in the aisles of Target, they have to double back to Jerusalem to find their lost kid.
After looking in all of the most obvious places to find a child, they finally stumble upon Jesus in the Temple, where he is amazing the rabbis with the depth of his questions. Now I don’t know about any of you, but when I heard that story in Sunday School, I could only imagine a miraculous, God-like prodigy, a kid who knew everything. When Mary and Joseph found him, he was not only unpacking the mysteries of eternal life, but was probably also teaching them advanced calculus and translating the works of Aristotle into Mandarin. This was the all-knowing God in the form of a little boy. There’s a sense in which the story does sound like that: we’re told that Mary and Joseph are amazed to find him there, and that when he says to them: “Did you not know I would be in my Father’s house?” that they don’t seem to understand. He was God.
But here’s the thing: The story ends with another line, one I didn’t think much about until I read it again in seminary: the last verse reads that after these things, the family returned home, and Jesus “grew and increased in wisdom.” And that means that clearly there was no calculus or translating to Mandarin, and probably no secrets of eternal life either. Jesus was no doubt precocious and special, in childhood and adulthood too, but he was also human. His unusual wisdom was held in balance with the fact that he had to grow and mature just like the rest of us.
So throughout his life, Jesus is showing us how to navigate this reality in which we all find ourselves: that in every one of us there are seeds of wisdom, goodness, and divinity. These seeds are ready to grow and increase and help us to live fuller lives. And at the very same time, we struggle with all of the natural limitations of human life. These limitations comes in the form of what we’d call pride or greed or impatience, biology or immaturity or just plain making a mistake, and there are a thousand ways in which these human limitations shape who we are. Until we come to terms with those limitations, we will never be fully human. And the great challenge of faith is trying to grow that seed of divinity even as we learn to live with our humanity. And that’s what the theologians are getting at when they say that Christ was both fully human and fully divine.
Sometimes life seems impossible; but Jesus shows us that, with God’s help, we can make it. The human limitations and the calling toward holiness can both be a part of who we are.
I began with the trivial matter of whether one likes or hates January, but this kind of wisdom applies to weightier matters as well; faith is meant to help us navigate the good and bad of life. What’s more, similar wisdom is found in many of the world’s great religions. Sometimes we hear wisdom from our own tradition most clearly when it is expressed through a fresh perspective, so this morning I’m going to share a story from the Sikh tradition.
I was recently blessed to learn from a Sikh scholar and teacher by the name of Simran Jeet Singh. His is the religion that began in the Punjab region of Asia. Sikhi (or Sikhism as westerners often call it) is the world’s 9th largest religion, and is one of a peaceful people who have often found themselves victims of violence and oppression. Forcibly relocated into that volatile part of the world between India and Pakistan, tens of thousands of moderns Sikhs have been the victims of extrajudicial government killings, ending in mass graves, mostly without much notice from the western media that focus on other places. Sikhs like Simran have had to figure out how to both advocate for the plight of their people while also trying to live joyous lives as best they can in a broken world. It is not unlike to the quest Christians might describe as the struggle of the human and the divine, and the wisdom of their tradition helps.
Simran Jeet Singh, a joyful author and speaker, writes about the overwhelming challenges we know so well; he notes that sometimes “it feels like the world is falling apart all around us. We see suffering and injustice everywhere we look: climate change, lack of health-care access, gender inequities, racial injustice, widespread corruption, mass incarceration, voter suppression. The list is endless. [and might include for you Israel and Palestine, Ukraine, the US-Mexico border…Punjab]. Simran notes that our soulful compassion [which his tradition calls] (Hamdard) makes us want to act, but being inundated with endless concerns leaves us feeling paralyzed.” And he adds that we live in a culture of performative outrage that “makes us feel like imposters if we don’t try to fix everything, or at least pretend to.”
On this point, Simran relates a Punjabi parable. According to the parable, on the day when the sun began to set for the first time, people feared that darkness would cover the land and remain forever. But one hopeful lantern in a small hut lifted its wick to challenge the darkness. Soon others joined it, and “watched in amazement as the many little lanterns illumined the earth, preventing the mask of darkness from taking over.”
Commenting on the parable, Simran writes of a way that Sikhi wisdom engages with the world, in a different way that we might expect. It is about the oneness and interconnectedness of the world, and involves what they call “seva.” Seva “demands humility, disabusing us of our desire to bear the weight of the entire world on our shoulders.” We cannot fix all the problems or expect others to always do the right thing; but through the interconnectedness of Sikhi teaching, we can work for good in the ways that are within our power. If we do so with joy, in ways that bear light into the world, then like that little lantern, our light might be an inspiration to others as well. (See Singh, The Light We Give, xiv-xv)
The Bible says: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” That’s how the wisdom of our own tradition describes the early days of Jesus’ life. He was fully human, and subject to the limitations and difficulties we all must face; and he was fully divine, called to be light to the world; and throughout life, he grew and increased in wisdom. This is how we see him “becoming Jesus.” And it is not just a story about his life, but a way of life into which we are all called as we navigate the troubles and joys of the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.