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Three Children or Two Children and an Adult


Luke 2:41-52    Jeremiah 1:4-10    1 Samuel 3:1-10    


I: — It’s been almost a year since any of us saw NHL hockey played.  Does anyone miss it? I don’t. Frankly, I find little pleasure in watching hockey on TV.  I can watch it for about one period (usually the first), and by then I’ve had enough.

Do I find hockey on TV boring because I don’t like hockey?  On the contrary I’m fond of the game and played it for twelve seasons. I enjoy watching hockey – as long as I can see it “live”.  It’s televised hockey that I don’t enjoy watching.

Why don’t I like watching hockey on TV?   Because TV never shows us the game.  TV merely shows us the puck.         TV doesn’t show us the whole game being played; TV merely shows us the puck zipping here and there and back again.

There’s a difference between seeing the puck and watching the game. I know the difference just because I know hockey. I know, for instance, that the team which plays better when it doesn’t have the puck is the team that wins.       (You see, the better a team plays when it doesn’t have the puck, the sooner the team gets it back; and obviously a team can’t score unless it has the puck.) And so whenever I’m watching a game “live” I pay closer attention to the team that doesn’t have the puck. I know too that in order to win, a team has to be able to get the puck out of its own end of the rink in two crisp passes.  In the first five minutes of a game I note whether or not a team can do this. I know a great deal about the game of hockey because I’ve been watching hockey for years.

Yet there is a different kind of knowledge I have of hockey too.  I know what it is to be bodychecked so hard you feel you have been hit by a train at a level crossing. I know the exhilaration of “wiring” a shot that leaves the opposing goaltender motionless and flashes the red light behind him.  I know all this not because I watch hockey; I know all this because I played hockey.

The first kind of knowledge is “observer-knowledge”; observer-knowledge is gained through accumulating information.  The second kind of knowledge is “player-knowledge”; player-knowledge is gained only through participating.

There are obvious differences between observer-knowledge and player-knowledge. The most important difference, however, is often overlooked.  It’s this: the players determine the outcome of the game.  Only the players determine the outcome of the game; no observer, no spectator, ever has.


God says to the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I KNEW YOU; I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations”. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”. God hasn’t known Jeremiah in the sense of observer-knowledge, always observing the man, always accumulating more and more information about Jeremiah.  God has known Jeremiah as a player, a participant in Jeremiah’s life, shaping the outcome of the prophet’s life.  God has known Jeremiah insofar as God himself has been involved in the unfolding of Jeremiah’s life — since when? since Jeremiah became a prophet? since he became an adult? since he was born?   No. God has been intimately involved, passionately involved, persistently involved since the day Jeremiah was conceived.


Today is Christian Family Sunday.  Today we are thinking particularly of children and parents together. We are thinking of the significance that children have for their parents, of the impact that parents make upon their children, of God’s incursion of parents and children together. One point we are going to stress in the service today is a point we have underlined several times already; namely, God has been a participant in the lives of our children from their conception and will continue to be this, for he has something for each to do.

As children grow up parents frequently scratch their heads and wonder (silently, I trust) what on earth is becoming of their child.   The future is uncertain; the child behaves in ways which parents find odd, even un-understandable. Worse than un-understandable, however, is behaviour that parents find heartbreaking whenever a youngster derails himself, and find infuriating since the youngster, despite superior intelligence, displays inferior wisdom. The parents are disappointed, anxious, angry and powerless all at once.  Now they have as little idea where their offspring is going to end up as they have of what precipitated the derailment.  It’s easy now to give up on the one whose birth brought such joy and promise one and one-half decades ago.

When this happens we must go back to Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and knew you not as a remote spectator high in the cheapest seats in the hockey arena, as far from the play as anyone can get. I knew you, rather, just because I was the single most intimate participant in your life — and still am”. That’s the point we have to take home: “and still am.”

We must never give up on our children.  We must never cease praying for them.  We must never think that because their future is unclear to them and to us they therefore have no future at all.  We must never assume that because we seem unable to reach them in some respects no one else ever will and God himself cannot.  Remember: Jeremiah wasn’t appointed to be a prophet the day he became a prophet. He was appointed to be a prophet the day he was conceived.  Between these two momentous days countless developments unfolded whose significance no one could guess; not Jeremiah himself, and certainly not his parents. And yet the single weightiest factor in Jeremiah’s life was the unidentified participation of God himself as the holy one of Israel shaped the youngster in a way no one could see for an end no one could foresee.

None of this is to suggest that as children grow up they need not come to faith, profess it boldly and confess it consistently.  Plainly they must. None of this is to suggest that their sinnership has been diluted one per cent.       Plainly it hasn’t, as parents and schoolteachers attest.  None of this is to suggest that as these infants grow up they are relieved of responsibility for who and what they are.  They are relieved of no responsibility at all.  But it is to say that the faith they are one day to profess and the obedience they are one day to render didn’t begin with them but began with the quiet work of the great infiltrator himself.


II: — Even as we admit that God is wonderfully at work in our children we must admit too that we adults are charged with discerning this; charged with discerning this and magnifying this. Eli discerned it, and so did Hannah. The story is one of my favourites. The boy Samuel is lying down, at bedtime, in the temple where he has gone to apprentice under Eli the priest. He hears his name being called, his very own name: “Samuel, Samuel”. He trots in to see old man Eli, who tells the boy that he, Eli, hasn’t called anyone.  It happens again. Finally Eli discerns that God is calling Samuel, calling Samuel for a work that remains hidden to them both.  We must note that it isn’t Samuel who is discerning; the text tells us that “Samuel did not yet know the Lord”.  It’s the old man who grasps what’s going on.

Hannah, Samuel’s mother, had grasped it first.  Hannah had wanted a child as she had wanted nothing else.       Each day brought her closer to menopause and closer to desperation.  Then it happened. She even named her child “Sam-u-el”: “His name is God”.  She meant, of course, that the child’s nature, the child’s character would be God-like in some respect.  Because Hannah had longed for this child so ardently, because he was the only child she was to have, did she clutch him to her, never let him out of her sight, treat him like an heirloom too precious to risk with the jarring and jostling which are the common lot? Did she mollycoddle him and smother him? No.  She sent him away from home, sent him to Eli where his spiritual formation would unfold. What made the wrench in Hannah’s heart bearable was her discernment that this step was necessary if her son was ever to exemplify the name she had given him: Sam-u-el. Wrench?  Terrible wrench. Every year she sent him a coat to replace the one he had outgrown.       Then he hadn’t stopped growing; he was very young.


It takes nothing less than Spirit-quickened discernment to grasp what God is doing in those who are growing up around us.  Eli had it. Hannah had it. My own father had it.  My father often intuited what was going on in my young head and heart; he saw that the ten-year old question I had asked him betokened far more than a child’s curiosity. On one occasion I had just learned the story of John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace”, slaveship captain whom the surge of God’s grace had finally rendered clergyman, hymnwriter, spiritual advisor without peer. I was perplexed about the justice of God’s mercy. My question wasn’t so much could God forgive someone who had trafficked in wanton cruelty as it was should God forgive such a person. My father saw the wheels turning in my ten-year old head.  He attempted an answer — somewhat convoluted — which I didn’t find convincing, and I told him so. He left off trying to answer the question directly and instead said gently, “Victor, he who was Newton ‘s saviour is my saviour too”. I got the point immediately. The expression someone’s sinnership takes may be socially reprehensible while the expression someone else’s takes is socially acceptable, even rewarded; nevertheless, all of us alike are sunk in sinnership to the same degree. All alike are the recipients of God’s condemnation, even as all alike are the beneficiaries of God’s mercy. I was aware that my father was as virtuous as Newton had been vicious; I was aware too, in my father’s comment, that on the Day of Judgement virtue and vice would count for nothing.  All that mattered then would be our response to a mercy as vast as it was undeserved. You will never hear anything else from this pulpit as long as I occupy it.  Only Spirit-quickened discernment — like that of Eli and Hannah and my dad — sees, laser-like, into the heart of the child and facilitates the spiritual formation of that child.

Samuel was still a growing boy when his mother at home and his mentor in the temple discerned the way and work of God within the child.  How important was the spiritual formation of young Samuel?   How crucial were his mother Hannah and his mentor Eli?  According to scripture Samuel is the last of the judges or elders in Israel ; Samuel is the first of the prophets.  Scripture maintains that Samuel is the greatest figure since Moses.  Towards the end of his life Samuel presciently anoints a boy, just a boy, in anticipation of this boy’s becoming Israel ’s greatest king: David.

You and I must understand that the spiritual formation of young people, in both home and church, is no small matter.


III: — The last episode we shall examine today has to do with Jesus.  Luke tells us he is twelve years old.  In ancient Israel a child became an adult at twelve. Jesus and his parents have gone to Jerusalem for Passover services. The services over, his parents set out for home, Nazareth , only to find that their son is missing.  Anxious and angry now, they trudge back to Jerusalem , find him stumping the theologians there, and tell him they are irked.       He replies, “Why do you have your shirts in a knot?       Isn’t this what I’m supposed to be doing?”

The seeds which his parents have been sowing for twelve years have borne fruit. The preparation for his later work, preparation which his parents have forged in him even though they have no idea what that “later work” is going to be; this preparation is finding its fulfilment in the twelve-year old, and will find even more dramatic fulfilment in the thirty-year old.       Our Lord’s parents, however, are slow to grasp it; slow to grasp the fact that their son’s vocational obedience is precisely what they have endeavoured to foster in him for years.  In first century Judaism a boy became a man on his twelfth birthday. The event in the temple that worries and irks the parents coincides with the child’s leaving childhood behind and stepping ahead in his adult vocation.

Our Lord’s parents, let me say again, are upset that their son, as the boy turns into a man; their son perplexes them and frustrates them.  Like all of us, from a psychological standpoint they have difficulty relinquishing control over their youngster.  Like all of us, from a spiritual standpoint they have difficulty understanding that their son mustdo what he’s doing if he’s to fulfil his Heavenly Father’s plan and purpose for him.

You and I should rejoice to see that day when our children, now grown up, are summoned to that work — and enter upon it — for which we have prepared them, under God, as best we have been able.  When it happens we mustn’t be at all surprised if the work to which God has appointed them isn’t what we had in mind; we mustn’t impede them in any way if the work to which God appoints them contradicts what we have always thought they should be about.       The truth is, every day in ever so many ways we are, under God, preparing our children for a work to which God will appoint them when all the while, every day, in every way, both we and our children have no idea what that work is going to be. Yes, I was raised in a home replete with Christian influences both overt and subliminal. Still, at no point did anyone ever sit down with me and have a man-to-man talk about the ministry. I had dozens of conversations with my dad, however, about lawyering. I went to university to study law, fell in love with philosophy, and am now Presbyterian minister in Schomberg.

My daughter Mary is fluent in French, and my daughter Catherine in Cantonese. If at some point Mary (B. Sc.N. graduate) tells me she’s been called to work in French-speaking Africa and Catherine back to China , there’s one response I mustn’t make: I mustn’t say, “Why do you have to go so far away? Doesn’t Mississauga need to be Christianized or healed?” I mustn’t say, “What’s more, if you go overseas and stay there who will look after your mother in her old age? How about a little consideration for her?” I had better not say this. If we have been genuine in the spiritual formation of our children; if through our discernment we have tried to foster the work of God’s Spirit within them, then we should rejoice to see all of this bear fruit even if it is fruit we never expected and now can’t understand.  I think we should even expect their discipleship to take them in directions which we haven’t anticipated and may not like.  After all, the only thing that matters for any of us is that we recognize God’s will for us and do it.

Several years ago when Maureen and I visited the Christian community on the Hebridean island of Iona, western reaches of Scotland, we learned of a seventy-year old member of the Iona Community (Church of Scotland) who was leaving for Latin America.  He had been a psychiatrist in Glasgow for years; soon he would be in El Salvador doing family-practice medicine. What response do you think the man’s announcement of this would bring forth?       I can see different people looking at him sideways and saying something like this:

His friends: “You can do as much healing amidst Glaswegian wretchedness as you can amidst El Salvadoran wretchedness, so why go half-way around the world?”

His medical colleagues: “You haven’t done family-practice medicine in years; what makes you think you can? It’s easier for a family-practitioner to do psychiatry than it is for a psychiatrist to do family-practice.”

His own physician: “You’ll get malaria or tapeworms or some such thing in two months and have to come home anyway.       Besides, you’re seventy years old.  Isn’t it time to hang up the stethoscope?”

His forty-five year old child: “Your grandchildren will miss you terribly, especially since you are their sole, surviving grandparent.”

But all of this is without force. All that matters, for any of us, is that we recognize God’s will for us and do it. We must pray every day that our children are going to do just this.  And when they do we hope our response will be better than that of Mary and Joseph.


Three children; or perhaps two children and an adult.  In any case Jeremiah reminds us that God has been engaged with little children from the day they were conceived. Young Samuel reminds us not so much of Samuel as of his mother Hannah and his mentor Eli, for these two discerned early in Samuel’s life what God was doing within the youngster.  The twelve-year old Jesus in the temple: he exemplifies emerging awareness of that vocation for which his parents have prepared him unknowingly even as they don’t understand it fully themselves.

God grant that the children in our midst will ever do as much for us as these three children have done for the world.  After all, these three the world will never forget.


                                                                                                   Victor Shepherd                                                                                                             

  May 2005