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The Boy Jesus
Summer Quarter: Many Faces of Wisdom
Unit 2: Wisdom in the Gospels
Sunday school lesson for the week of July 12, 2020
By Rev. Ashley Randall
Lesson Scripture: Luke 2:39-52
Key Verse: Luke 2:40
Wisdom is staying focused on God’s ways—no matter what.
Focus on the Numbers
Katherine Johnson and I share a birthday, but little else. She was born as Creola Katherine Coleman on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Her mother, Joylette, was a teacher and her father, Joshua, was a lumberman, farmer, and handyman who worked part-time at the Greenbrier Hotel. She was the youngest of four children.
Education was important to the Coleman family. In the 1920s, Greenbrier County did not offer public schooling for Black students past the eighth grade, so the Colemans arranged for their children to attend high school in Institute, West Virginia. To keep the family together, they split their time between Institute during the school year and White Sulphur Springs in the summer.
Katherine showed strong mathematical abilities from an early age. She started high school when she was 10 years old. After graduating at 14, she enrolled at West Virginia State, a historically Black college. Her passion and prowess for math continued, and she took every math course offered by the college. One of her professors added new mathematics courses just for her. She graduated summa cum laude in 1937 with degrees in mathematics and French, at age 18. Following graduation, she was hired to teach at a Black public school in Marion, Virginia.
In 1939, she married, left her teaching job, and enrolled in a graduate math program at West Virginia University. She quit after one year after becoming pregnant and deciding to focus on her family, but her passion for math could not be denied.
As she considered her options, she sets her sights on a career as a research mathematician. Some of her friends and family advised her to temper her aspirations. Theoretical mathematics was a difficult field for Blacks and women to enter. Nevertheless, she was able to find a few jobs in teaching.
In 1952, a relative mentioned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring mathematicians. At the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, based in Hampton, Va., NACA hired Black mathematicians as well as whites for their Guidance and Navigation Department. She accepted a job offer from the agency in June 1953.
From 1953 to 1958, she worked as a part of a pool of women performing math calculations. Katherine has referred to the women in the pool as virtual “computers who wore skirts.” One day, she and a colleague were temporarily assigned to help an all-male flight research team. Katherine's knowledge of analytic geometry helped make quick allies of male bosses and colleagues to the extent that, “they forgot to return me to the pool.”
According to an oral history archived by the National Visionary Leadership Project: “
While the racial and gender barriers were always there, Katherine says she ignored them. Katherine was assertive, asking to be included in editorial meetings (where no women had gone before). She simply told people she had done the work and that she belonged.”
If you have seen the movie “Hidden Figures” or read the book by the same title you may have a better understanding of the kind of attitudes she faced from the men and women who were her colleagues. What you may not remember is that Katherine Johnson calculated the launch window and the trajectory for the May 5, 1961, space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. She plotted backup navigation charts for astronauts in case of electronic failures. Her work helped ensure that Shepard’s Freedom 7
Mercury capsule was found quickly after landing,
When NASA used electronic computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn's orbit around Earth, officials called on Katherine Johnson to verify the computer's numbers. Glenn asked for her specifically, and refused to fly unless Johnson verified the calculations.
She also helped to calculate the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon. In 1970, Johnson worked on the Apollo 13 Moon mission. When the mission was aborted, her work on backup procedures and charts helped set a safe path for the crew's return to Earth, creating a one-star observation system that allowed astronauts to determine their location with accuracy. Toward the end of her career, Johnson worked on the Space Shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite, and on plans for a mission to Mars.
Obedience Leads to Wisdom
Within weeks of the birth of the church on Pentecost, people began to tell and retell stories about Jesus’ life. Indeed, we have a record of one of the first (if not the first) stories told publicly in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Peter goes out of the upper room, inspired by the Holy Spirit, into the street to explain to the crowd the strange phenomenon they had just witnessed (see Acts 2:14-36). Over the next months and years, the number of stories about what Jesus said and did grew. Within a few decades many of those stories were collected and became authoritative records of Jesus’ time on Earth. Today we refer to those as the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
You should know that the stories we have in our bibles are not the only stories that were circulating in those first few decades of the early church. At the close of the Gospel of John, you will find this reminder: “Jesus did many other things as well. If all of them were recorded, I imagine the world itself wouldn’t have enough room for the scrolls that would be written” (John 21:25).
Some of those other stories were also collected and distributed among the early congregations of believers. Among those was a collection that focused on the early years of Jesus’ life. It is known today as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. It is a collection of stories that purport to describe some of the significant events in the life of the child Jesus. There are stories about Jesus bringing clay birds to life, cursing children who frustrate his plans, striking people blind because they complain to his parents, and resurrecting a friend who dies when he falls from a roof. These stories are fantastic, fanciful, and were recognized as being as inauthentic and heretical very early, but for a few centuries they enjoyed fairly wide distribution because they supplied people with some details about the early life of Jesus.
As you know, there is very little about Jesus’ early years in our current bible. Mark and John both begin with the announcement of Jesus’ ministry by John the Baptizer, and then move straight into Jesus’ public ministry. Matthew has the story of Jesus’ conception, birth in Bethlehem, the visit of the Magi, the exile to Egypt, and the return to Nazareth. Luke gives us more detail concerning some of these events and introduces us to a few others: Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and Zechariah, angels appearing to shepherds, and the songs of Simeon and Anna, for instance. Luke is the only one of the four who gives us details about the boy Jesus and his trip to the Temple in Jerusalem.
While there are elements of the supernatural in Luke’s recounting of these events in the life of Jesus, Luke seems more focused on the customary, regular, even ordinary nature of the circumstances he describes. Following Jesus’ birth, his parents did everything the Law required (compare Leviticus 12:1-8 and Luke 2:21-24). In practical terms, Jesus’ parents are acknowledging that God deserves respect, obedience, and the utmost regard for the ineffable wonder of God’
s presence, power, and glory. They are walking the way of wisdom. They are demonstrating their “fear of the Lord.” And they are doing it as part of the routine of becoming parents – even though they have been told their son “is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34b).
Of course, Luke gives us other hints of their devotion to following God’s path: Mary’s “let it be with me according to your word” (1:38); Joseph taking his pregnant wife with him to Bethlehem; their presenting their son for circumcision; presenting the sacrifices prescribed by the Law. So it should not be surprising that as Jesus grew from infant to young boy that he “grew up and became strong…. was filled with wisdom, and God’
s favor was on him” (2:40).
Neither should it be surprising that Jesus’ parents made the annual trip to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of Passover. It was about a three-day journey from Nazareth, but it was a seven-day festival, and it was the central festival for the people of Israel – celebrating God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. It was also an opportunity to visit the Temple.
Living in a country with a church on nearly every corner, it is difficult for us to fully appreciate the significance of the Temple. King Herod (the same king who had ordered the slaughter of the innocents) had ordered and underwritten extensive work to the Temple to restore it to its former glory. The Temple was a physical reminder of the presence and power of God. It was still the center of the cult of sacrifice. Furthermore, it was the main repository for the holy writings – the Law and the Prophets – and the primary place of study for the religious leaders of the nation.
At the age of 12, Jesus is not yet considered an adult, but it is no longer considered a child. That becomes clear when Luke tells us, “After the festival was over, they were returning home, but the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents didn’t know it” (2:43). They assumed that their son – their strong, wise, favored son – was among the group of friends and relatives who were returning to Nazareth and that he would show up when they stopped for the night.
When they fail to locate him among the company of those returning to Nazareth they head back to Jerusalem. Luke tells us they searched for Jesus for three days before they located him. If you are a parent, I hope you will take a few minutes to imagine what Mary and Joseph were feeling as they traveled back to Jerusalem and then retraced their steps, questioned those they encountered, all the while imagining all sorts of harm their son may have suffered.
Their search ends back at the Temple. They find Jesus “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and putting questions to them” (2:46). You always find something the last place you look (because you quit looking once you find it). I’m sure Mary and Joseph felt a great sense of relief when they saw their son sitting in the company of these scholars, but the shock of finding Jesus here elicits a scolding from Mary: “
Child, why have you treated us like this? Listen! Your father and I have been worried. We’ve been looking for you!” (2:48)
Notice that Mary addresses Jesus as “child.” Jesus may have been ready to establish his independence, but Mary and Joseph continue to feel the weight of parental responsibility and the bond of familial ties. Jesus is their son and it is their duty to ensure that he stays on the path, and an essential tenet of that path is to show honor to your father and mother (Exodus 20:12).
Jesus’ response to his mother's question seems dismissive. “
Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’
s house?” (2:49) Jesus seems to assume that his earthly parents should know who his true Father is. Not only that, Mary and Joseph should have known that this was where Jesus had to be. It was his destiny.
Certainly, Luke’s description of Jesus engaging the religious scholars in conversation, posing perceptive questions, and making insightful answers was convincing evidence of Jesus’ claim. Jesus was demonstrating a depth of wisdom that was remarkable for anyone, much more for someone of his young age.
Nevertheless, in the heat of the moment it is too much for his parents to comprehend. “They didn’t understand what he said to them” (2:50). So they told him to collect his things, say “good bye” to his new friends, and come with them. They returned to Nazareth and Jesus “was obedient to them” (2:51). Once again Luke tells us, “Jesus matured in wisdom and years, and in favor with God and with people” (2:52).
So we find the message again here in the life of the young boy Jesus. Following the path of obedience leads to growth in wisdom, which, in turn, produces a healthy relationship with God and with other people.
It seems that the scholars fail to fully appreciate the wisdom Jesus demonstrates, as well. They fade into the background when Jesus’ parents arrive. None of them tell his parents how impressed they are with this young boy’s understanding of the ways of God. They are amazed at Jesus’ questions and his answers, but they are content to let him go with his parents. I wonder if any of them remember that day 20 years later when Jesus shows up at the Temple again.
An Ordinary Obedience
Gnosticism was a popular movement of religious thought that developed in the first century AD among early Christian and Jewish sects. It proved popular because it emphasized special personal spiritual knowledge (gnosis)
over the discipline of following orthodox teachings, traditions, and ecclesiastical authority. It was really antiestablishment, and at the same time, elitist. Those who ascribed to Gnosticism believed the goal of life was to escape our material existence and the primary way of doing that was to receive some mystical insight – some special divine wisdom. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas emerged out of this community.
The early Christian community rejected both the idea that the world was evil and that salvation was the result of some esoteric intellectual insight into the nature of the divine or of some special power that was granted to only a few select people. God created the world and called it good. Throughout history, God invited people to live in obedience to the practical instructions God gave them so that they would experience the goodness of this world.
At the right time, God sent Jesus to live among us, as one of us – fully human, while fully divine. “The Word became flesh and made his home among us” (John 1:14a). The incarnation is God’s affirmation that the world is good, and that the way to experience fellowship with God – salvation – is by living a life that follows the path God desires: doing justice, showing mercy, living humbly. Even as a young boy, Jesus understood this. His wisdom was the result of living a life of obedience.
John Wesley also thought it was important to note that “growing in wisdom” should be a life-long pursuit. In his “Sermon Notes,” Wesley offers this interpretation of Luke’s observation about Jesus’ developmental process: “It plainly follows, that though a man were pure, even as Christ was pure, still he would have room to increase in holiness, and, in consequence thereof, to increase in favor as well as in the love of God.” Sanctification – “going on to perfection” – is the natural consequence of practicing obedience. Wisdom is an expression of holiness.
Ashley Randall is the Pastor of the Garden City UMC in Garden City, GA. He recommends the movie “Hidden Figures.” After you have watched it, consider watching the movie “Just Mercy” and then calculate how old you were when the events in these movies were occurring.
- What do you think gave Katherine Johnson the determination to continue to do the work she did at NASA despite so many people treating her dismissively?
- Which surprises you more: the reaction of Jesus’s parents when they find him, the response of Jesus to his parents, or the lack of response from the religious scholars?
- Three questions from John Wesley: Are you going on to perfection? Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? Are you earnestly striving after it?