December 30, 2018 – Christmas 1 C
41Now every year [Jesus’] parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” 49He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50But they did not understand what he said to them. 51Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
52And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.
Before starting seminary, I had a job where I drove a lot. I would regularly spend 20 or more hours a week in the car. And, eventually, I grew tired of music on the radio. I needed something to capture my attention differently and to make me think differently. That’s when I started listening to Krista Tippett and her wonderful podcast, On Being. Krista has made it a priority in her life to ask good questions. Starting out as an author documenting the fall of the Berlin Wall, to the books she’s written, and the hundreds and hundreds of interviews she’s done, she has had a lot of practice. And in her practice of asking questions, she’s begun to use some interesting language around questions and answers.
“A question is a powerful thing,” she writes. Krista believes that every question should be met with, what she calls, “generous listening.” It means that not every question will have an answer right away and the best questions will be met with an attitude of vulnerability. This, I believe, is a key to understand each other – asking questions and being willing to listen for the answer, not assuming an answer.
I think that is, in part, why Jesus’ questions were mentioned before his answers in our gospel today. I wonder what sort of questions Jesus was asking in Jerusalem during our gospel reading today. I wonder if he was listening generously. We don’t often think about Jesus asking questions, because so much of the gospels is Jesus having the answers. We read his sermons, parables, and conversations in which he so often has the right answers, that we forget that Jesus had to learn, too.
Learning is a constant process, of course; you can see that in the gospels as well as in your life experience. And this learning can take a lot of different shapes – learning a skill or trade, for example, is probably the foundation of our educational system. But learning the answers is only one small part of learning how to be human. Learning how to ask questions, real questions, and being able to listen generously is a much harder task. We receive no grades, no raises, no evaluations on this kind of learning, so it often doesn’t get done. But this is how we learn how to be better people.
Learning to ask good questions and listen generously is how we learn to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. That is how we learn to bear with one another, help one another, and love one another. That is how we begin to realize how much we need each other. But the reality is that often we’re not very good at these things. We’re often much better at assuming the answers before we ask the question. We’re often much better at looking out for ourselves than we are at caring for others. We’re often more likely to clothe ourselves with fear and hatred and misunderstanding, rather than compassion, kindness, and patience. Because it’s easier – it’s easier to assume that I’m right and it’s everyone else who needs to change, easier to think I’ve got things figured out and the rest of the world needs to catch up.
This made even harder by the fact that many of us evaluate ourselves based on our ability to answer the questions life throws at us. We want to have the answers. As a father, as a husband, as a pastor, I want to have the answers, too. When people come to us, we want to be able to help them, to give them a neat and tidy answer, to send them on their way knowing what to do next. It has been my experience, though, that there is more to life than having the answers. There is much more value in learning how to ask questions than there is in knowing the answers. This is how true change happens, both in ourselves and in the world, and that is one way the Kingdom of God is made real to us.
It is also worth mentioning that asking good questions can not only be difficult, but unwelcomed. Many of Jesus’ most intense confrontations throughout the gospels are when he asks a tough question. Some people will not and do not want to question their beliefs, their answers, or their practices. It is part of why the religious and social elite had Jesus killed. But I hope that never stops you from asking, because asking questions is a faithful response to the love that God has shown through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Asking questions shows that we’re paying attention, or trying to pay attention, to what God is doing in the world. Ultimately, asking questions is how we know that the Jesus’ sacrifice of love is yours.
Martin Luther believed that questions were the work of the Holy Spirit. Questions like, “Could God love me?” and “Am I forgiven?” are all met with a resounding, “Yes!” Questions like these are the work of God’s spirit moving in you and they remind us that God’s grace, love, and mercy are yours. They remind us that God came to earth, learned to be human, and that is what Christmas is all about. The incarnation is the fancy word for it, that God would take on flesh and live among us and that God would continue to do that through the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God into the world.
Learning to ask questions and learning to listen without assumption are two of our most difficult tasks as people. I believe that Jesus understood this. Learning to let a question sit unanswered is even harder. But the reality is that God is in the question as much as God is in the answer. God can handle your questions and the Church should, too, even if we don’t always have an answer.
As you live your life this week, pay attention to the questions you have and how you ask them. Pay attention to how you listen for answers. And please, remember that God is there with you, through all of it, whether you get an answer or not. Experiencing God’s love is not a mathematic formula to be answered, but an ongoing process of calling you back to yourself and reminding you that you are claimed as a daughter and son of God. I don’t always have answers, but I know this is true. Amen.