07. January 2024
Then He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them, but His mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.
In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.
Do you remember those W.W.J.D. bracelets from the 90s? They were a fad that took off among Christians, inspired by a book of the same title by Charles Sheldon from 1896. A youth group leader at a reformed church in Holland, Michigan, made these bracelets popular. The original book author, a Christian trying to integrate socialism into the church’s life, was also a popular fad of the 1890s but, unfortunately, hasn’t died out.
But this “What Would Jesus Do?” theology is probably from popular Baptist preacher in London, Charles Spurgeon, who himself says he picked it up from Thomas à Kempis’s popular work, “Imitation of Christ.” If you want to go further back yet, you find the idea of imitating Jesus in Augustine and perhaps even in St. Paul’s letter to Galatians, “ I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal 2:20)
But enough of today’s history lesson. Let’s run with the idea that twelve-year-old Jesus gives us a moral example to emulate today. The first lesson is that they went to the Feast of the Passover every year in Jerusalem as a family. This means that you must gather with your family for church, at least at Christmas and Easter, or whatever your custom. The second lesson is to stick behind at church, even an extra day or three because God wants you in His house. Stop being in such a hurry to get out of church. The third lesson is to ask the preacher-teacher questions and listen to him. That way, you can impress him with your understanding and answers. The fourth lesson is to boldly confess your two natures as a son of Adam and a son of God, even if it confuses your parents. The final lesson of “What Would Jesus Do?” is to be submissive to your parents and other authorities, doing whatever they tell you.
Now, of course, that’s all silly. It’s a gross misuse of the Scriptures. And you don’t need Jesus as an example for these things to be true. Go to church. Pray with your fellow saints. Keep the festival calendar. Listen to God’s word preached. Interact with God’s Word in Bible Study. Submit to your parents and honor them. All that is revealed perfectly well in the lives of the patriarchs and prophets. Moses spoke the moral law with utter clarity on Mount Sinai. You learned the Ten Commandments by heart.
The Law of God is clear, and you don’t need Jesus going to the temple at age twelve to imitate. All the Law and the Prophets are summed up in the word, “Love God and love the neighbor.” “What Would Jesus Do?” applies to showing mercy and love for the neighbor, especially for the hungry, naked, imprisoned, lonely, and the like. That’s good. It was always true. And, such love worked in us by the Spirit. Jesus has a parable or two about that.
But the absurdity of imitating Christ is seen if and when we try to be Christ in His place. We cannot do the salvation job: dying for sins, rising from the dead, bestowing the Spirit, gathering the church, baptizing in blood, forgiving sins in Word with body and blood. We’re not Jesus: the Lord saves. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to be Jesus in Jesus’ place. And that’s where we go off the rails, thinking that by our reason or strength, we can believe in God and love our neighbor as Jesus does. That is what pre-teen Jesus says is “His Father’s business.” The work of saving you and all the world is the will of the Father for Jesus and Him alone because it is not your capacity or will save the world.
And that is what Jesus would, could, and did. According to His human nature, as He grew in wisdom and stature, becoming strong in the Spirit, and the grace of God was upon Him. As He attended to hearing the Word, Jesus learned what His heavenly Father sent Him to do. And according to His Divine nature, the Word has always known what He was to do, the only begotten of the Father. This is why the Apostle can assert that Jesus Christ was crucified from the foundation of the world. It is a mystery that Jesus both would come to know and struggle to fulfill God’s will (e.g., the Garden of Gethsemane) and that Jesus has always known who He is and what He is about. “‘Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously.’ And He said to them, ‘Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?’” Thus, today, His two natures are epiphanied and revealed to us: the son of Mary and the son of God.
But more than that, we also begin to see at age twelve what He explicitly states at His Baptism. “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” While we can learn what righteousness looks like from Jesus, righteousness has already been revealed by Moses and the Prophets on the sacred page. What would Jesus do? He completed all the Law of God for you on your behalf. He kept all the feasts and festivals for you. He listened and learned all wisdom from God for you. He is submissive to His parents for you. Every moral, ceremonial, and civil law of God is fulfilled and completed in Jesus. There’s nothing to do or imitate to be saved. His perfect obedience is given to you as a gift. His righteousness is washed over you in Baptism and renewed in you by the proclamation of Absolution. You are forgiven in Jesus, righteous in His name. Now you live not by Law or compulsion, but by the Spirit of Christ given to you in Word and Sacrament.
And when a person is born anew by the Spirit of God and is liberated from the law (that is, when he is free from this driver and is driven by the Spirit of Christ), he lives according to the immutable will of God as it is comprehended in the law and, in so far as he is born anew, he does everything from a free and merry spirit. These works are, strictly speaking, not works of the law but works and fruits of the Spirit, or, as St. Paul calls them, the law of the mind and the law of Christ. According to St. Paul, such people are no longer under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14; 8:2). [Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article VI, 17.]
You are free to hear and learn. You are free to keep the festivals. You can take a day or three or even more for Christmas if you want. You can ask the pastor as many questions as you like. In Jesus, you can be about the Father’s business, not under compulsion of the Law but in the freedom of sins forgiven. And the Spirit will give you to grow in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men, too, because you are in Christ.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guards your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin