Why do we mark Mothering Sunday in the way that we do? The cynics speak of a bonanza for the greetings card industry in the lull between Valentines Day and Easter. But surely we don't fall for the advertising quite so easily. There is more to it than that. We appreciate the prompting and the pretext that it gives us to say thank you to our mothers, and tell them that we love them. Why? Because we are aware that too easily and too often we take for granted what they have done, and what they still do. The months and even the years could otherwise slip by without any clear acknowledgement from us of the debt that we children owe to them. And we recognise when we do stop and think about it that being a mother is not a cushy number. Certainly it is the case that most children give most mothers great delight. But it is also the case that the price to be paid in time and work and worry is high. Bringing up children is hard. A mother was taking her 13 year old to task for smoking in the garden shed. "And what about you?" she said, turning to her 10 year old daughter. "Have you been smoking too?" "No, mum" she said, full of righteous indignation. "I certainly have not. I've given it up." Those of us who are parents are very well aware that our children, for all the joy that they bring, are very far from perfect. It may be that our children put their best foot forward when they are outside the home and with other people, reserving their most frustration creating behaviour for the confines of the family. It may that their flaws are on much more public display. Either way, parents have to battle with the wilful, selfish and destructive tendencies in their children. It is a long haul. The title that I gave myself today is "What would it be like to have the perfect child?" I am aware that it is a somewhat foolhardy title. However, I am confident that the realist in you will not have imagined that I am pretending to offer the key to transforming children instantly into paragons of perfection. Nonetheless, maybe when the heat is on at home those of us who are parents do dream of what it might be like if our children were perfect, instead of being the wonderful but deeply flawed creatures that we know them to be. And maybe we think to ourselves "How smooth things would be. How stress free." But would they? In the whole of history one couple has had the experience of having the perfect child. That couple was Mary and Joseph. That child was Jesus. What was it like to be his mother? What was it like to bring him up? Most of those years are shrouded in silence. All we know about the time from his infancy to his adulthood is contained in the passage from Luke's Gospel that we heard read. Now, there is good news under the surface here, and we will come to that. But the bad news for mothers is this. Even for Mary, who had the perfect child, there was anxiety, and misunderstanding, and suffering as she raised Jesus as a boy, never mind when he was an adult. Because Mary and Joseph were Godly parents, they obeyed God's law for the Jews and each year they would go on the long trek from their northern home in Nazareth to the great Temple in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. The Passover was (and is - though the Temple has been destroyed) an annual national reminder to the Jews of how God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. We heard how, when Jesus was twelve, they went as usual, but on the way home, after travelling for a day, they suddenly realised that Jesus was not with them in their group. How that could happen is not explained. It may that the women and younger children walked separately from the men and older boys, meeting up at the campsite at the end of the day. In that case, since Jesus was on the borderline between being a young child and an older boy, Joseph could have thought he was with Mary, and Mary that he was with Joseph. Or it could be simply that they assumed he was somewhere amongst what was obviously a reasonably large crowd of festival-going relatives and friends. Either way, if you've ever lost a child even for a few minutes, you can imagine their feelings. The Christian writer Gordon Macdonald recalls waiting at an airport with a lot of other tired and irritable people. A young couple were preoccupied with looking out of the observation windows for a late plane, and their three year old daughter wandered off unnoticed. When both mother and father finally turned to see where she was, they became hysterical. Rushing in all directions at once, they began to shout the girl's name. They were frantic, and everyone quickly caught the sense of panic. It took a few minutes and several airline attendants to locate the child. Everyone was relieved. But when she was brought to her father, he immediately seized her and began to beat her angrily. At the same time he shouted humiliating and embarrassing threats about the consequences should she ever wander off again. Macdonald's comment is this: " the question that was circulating in a lot of our minds as we looked on was this: is this punishment? I suspect that we were seeing an uncontrolled man giving vent to his own rage at being exposed as an irresponsible father" Whether Mary and Joseph felt irresponsible I don't know. It took them three days to locate Jesus. When they found him in the Temple, they didn't start beating him and shouting humiliating and embarrassing threats. But they did blame him. Reading the passage from verse 48:
When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, "Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you." [What a world of worry there is in those words!] "Why were you searching for me?" he asked. "Didn't you know that I had to be in my Father's house?" But they did not understand what he was saying to them.
You see, having the perfect child was no bed of roses. There was anxiety, and misunderstanding, and suffering for Mary. And this was only just the beginning. She had been told by Simeon in the Temple twelve years earlier, when Jesus was a baby, "a sword will pierce your own soul too." Jesus would suffer and so would she. That was the experience of the mother of the one perfect child. So you see, we may as well face this reality. Having the perfect child would not be so blissful after all. In fact I think parents get an inkling of that. At least when our children are behaving badly it is relatively easy to feel superior to them. It is quite disconcerting when at times they behave better than you, even with greater maturity, or with greater faith. That is not comfortable. It is shaming. One way or another, bringing up children is hard. Now to do a hard job like raising a child, two things are needed. First, we need wisdom. That is to say, we need to know what to do. Family life is complicated. What should a good parent be like? What should we say in that tight spot? How should we react for the best? We need to know. But knowing is not enough. First we need wisdom. But secondly, we need grace. That is, we need the internal power of character and self-control and perseverance to do what we know we should do. Our problem is that by nature we have neither wisdom nor grace. We are not wise. In other words, a lot of the time we don't know what to do. And then we do not have grace. Even when we do know, or if we are told what we should do, a lot of the time we find ourselves unable to do it. If we do know the kind of people we should be, we find that we are very different, and that we just do not have the power to change ourselves. These are not problems only of parents, of course. Lack of wisdom and grace is a trap that has sprung on every one of us. But those of us who are parents are all too often unwise in the way we treat our children. As someone said, "When I got married I had four theories of child rearing and no children. Now I have four children and no theories." For instance, John Cleese recalls seeing what he describes as a Python sketch in his local supermarket. Mum was there with two expertly naughty children and every time they did something they shouldn't have - which was about every eight seconds - she'd shout and threaten them with unimaginable deprivations and tortures, whereupon they'd go straight off and do something else naughty. And she'd increase the threatened punishment by five thousand lashes. So then they'd do something really naughty to let her know who was boss. "In the end," he says, "she had to give them a lot of sweets so they wouldn't burn the place down." That mother did not seem to know that the first two principles of child discipline are that children need to be given clear boundaries, and that when those boundaries are wilfully challenged, they need to be clearly and confidently enforced. Or maybe she did know, but knowing is not enough. I rather like the style of one parent who wrote some "Household Principles for Children in the style of the Book of Leviticus". Just a sample of "Laws When at Table":
When you have drunk, let the empty cup then remain upon the table, and do not bite it upon its edge and by your teeth hold it to your face in order to make noises in it sounding like a duck: for you will be sent away. When you chew your food, keep your mouth closed until you have swallowed, and do not open it to show your brother and sister what is within; I say to you, do not so, even if your brother or your sister has done the same to you. And though your stick of carrot does indeed resemble a marker, draw not with it upon the table even in pretend, for we do not do that, that is why. And though the pieces of broccoli are very like small trees, do not stand them upright to make a forest, because we do not do that, that is why. Sit just as I have told you, and do not lean to one side or the other, nor slide down until you are nearly slid away. Heed me; for if you sit like that, your hair will go into the syrup. And now behold, even as I said, it has come to pass.
Children need clear boundaries, but knowing that is not enough. In one household a new kitten was brought home. There was much excitement amongst the three children, not least Rebecca, aged four. Before the father released the animal from the safety of its basket he carefully explained the house rules with regard to the new occupant: "You may smooth the cat on its back, and tickle its chin. If you are very careful you can smooth its tummy, and so long as you are gentle you may pick her up and cuddle her." It was at this point that the father's voice grew solemn. "But," he said, "on no account must you ever pull her tail. Do you understand all that?" Three small heads nodded in agreement. The cat was duly lifted out of its carrier, and put on the floor. Whereupon, Rebecca with scarcely a hesitation took three strides towards it and grabbed its tail. She then turned, smiled at her father, and before the dazed parent could move, yanked for all she was worth. In essence that child was saying, "You have given me rules and I understand them. But I have decided to test you by breaking them and crossing the boundary. What are you going to do about this?" The child is looking for a reaction. It is vital she is not disappointed. In the short term, though, we often find it easier to let it go. For a quiet life, we avoid the confrontation. Because neither wisdom nor grace come naturally to us. What we need is to get to know someone who can change both our minds and our hearts. Well, the good news is this: God has given to us such a person. Would you like to have the perfect child? God gave his perfect child not just to Mary, but to all of us. Look at what is said about Jesus both at the beginning and at the end of our passage. Verse 40:
And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.
And then at the end, verse 52:
And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men.
Of all the children born to women, Jesus alone has the wisdom and the grace that we need. You can see how he displayed his wisdom even as a boy that time in the Temple, when Mary and Joseph were anxiously hunting for him, not realising as they should have done that he was in the house of God, his Father. There he was (verse 46)
sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.
And his grace, too, is evident. Look at verse 51:
Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart.
The Bible says:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.
And that is what the boy Jesus did. What was the source of his wisdom and grace? He was the Son of God. He was also the only sinless man. He was fully God and fully man. The Bible says about him:
in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.
He was the unique Son of God. And it also says that he
has been tempted in every way, just as we are - yet was without sin.
You see Jesus was not just wise and full of grace. He embodies wisdom and grace. The apostle Paul, whose life was totally transformed by getting to know Jesus, wrote that Christ is
the power and the wisdom of God [He] has become for us wisdom from God - that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.
Jesus is our righteousness. That is, he puts us right with God. Because it's not that God has wandered out of our lives and got lost, as Mary and Joseph thought had happened with Jesus. It is us who have wandered away from him and got lost. Jesus is our holiness. That is, he makes us acceptable to God once more, despite what we are like, and he changes us from the inside, making us into the kind of people we need to be. He gives us the grace we need. And not just for being parents, if we are called to that. But for life. Jesus is our redemption. That is, he forgives us all of our failures, our disobedience, our wilful challenging of the boundaries that God has set for our own good. How does he do that? By his obedience to his Heavenly Father, even to death on a cross. The clear penalty for crossing God's boundaries is death and hell. But Jesus, in his wisdom and by his grace, has paid that penalty on our behalf. Do you want wisdom and grace? Then look to Jesus. He forgives our failures, shows us how to live, and gives us the power to change. The opposite of wisdom is the way so many behave towards Jesus by rejecting him or ignoring him. Let's not be fools like that. If you want wisdom and grace for being a mother, then seek them from Jesus. If your want wisdom and grace for living (whether you are a mother or not!), then seek them from Jesus. His promise is that he will receive us into his family if we come to him and simply ask. I said at the start that I was sure you would all know better than to think that I was pretending to offer the key to transforming children instantly into paragons of perfection. I am not. Nor am I suggesting that when you come to Christ you will become instantly perfect and all wise - the perfect mother or whatever. But when you come to Christ, you do start a living, lifelong relationship with the one truly is the source of all wisdom and grace. When you come to Christ, the learning and the changing begin. How do you begin that relationship with Christ? Just talk to him. You can do it in the quietness of your heart. You can do it now, or at home. Any time, any where. You just say to him something like this: "Jesus, I'm sorry for being foolish. I'm sorry for wandering off and getting lost. Please forgive me. Please show me how I should live. Please change me so I can do what you want. Thank you that you will never leave me." That's all it takes to start. Just talk to him. He won't let you down - he's not like that. But then let me make two suggestions that would help you to keep going if you are making a start with Jesus. And even if you do not feel ready to take that step yet, either of these things would help you to learn a bit more about the wisdom and grace of Jesus. First, you will see on the back of this orange "JET" leaflet that is in the pews details of a session that our Pastoral Worker Joan Parker is running this afternoon and again next Sunday afternoon, called "The Art of Parenting". If you want to begin to think more about how the wisdom Jesus gives can be applied to bringing up children, do go along to that. As David said, you can put your name down on the board that is at the back of church. Secondly, come along to our services over the Easter period, beginning with our Easter music service in two weeks time in the evening. We will be talking more in those services about how the death and the resurrection of Jesus two thousand years ago can transform our lives today. Again, you have a leaflet with all the details. Whether you are making a start with Jesus, or are still thinking, join us then. Let's be quiet for a moment and bow our heads. Then, before we sing our final hymn, we can each say to Jesus what we want to say in the silence of our own hearts