And Jesus Grew in  Wisdom by the Rev. Lee Woofenden


Bridgewater, Massachusetts, January 18, 2004

Genesis 12:10-20 Abram in Egypt

Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, "I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, 'This is his wife.' Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you."

When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that she was a very beautiful woman. And when Pharaoh's officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels.

But the Lord inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram's wife Sarai. So Pharaoh summoned Abram. "What have you done to me?" he said. "Why didn't you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, 'She is my sister,' so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!" Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had.

Luke 2:40-52 The Boy Jesus at the Temple

And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.

And every year Jesus' parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old they went up to the feast, according to the custom. After the feast was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him.

After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 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."

"Why were you searching for me?" he asked. "Didn't you know that I had to be doing my Father's work?" But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in divine and human favor.

Arcana Coelestia #1461 The Lord learned from the Scriptures

During his childhood, the Lord wished to take in no other religious knowledge than what was found in the Word of God. And the Word was opened up to him from Jehovah himself, his Father, with whom he would be united and become one. That wish was even stronger because nothing is said in the Word that does not relate at its deepest level to God, and that did not originally come from him.

After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. (Luke 2:46-47)

Our Gospel story this morning, of Jesus as a boy at the Temple, is the only story we have of Jesus' childhood. Even the story of his birth is told only in Mark and Luke. And none of the other Gospels besides Luke have any stories of his childhood at all.

We do get a few hints of what he was doing as he grew up. There is a reference in Mark (6:3) to Jesus being a carpenter. In the parallel passage in Matthew (13:55), it is Joseph who is the carpenter. So apparently he learned his adoptive father's trade--which would have been very common for boys of that era. It appears that outwardly, Jesus was for the most part a fairly unremarkable craftsman, living like other boys and men of his time.

If this were not so, more stories of Jesus childhood would have survived. Apparently what we have in the two birth stories and this one little vignette of Jesus at the age of twelve are the only stories of the Lord's young life that were remarkable enough to have survived in people's memories to be recorded later. The rest of our stories of Jesus all come from the three intense years of his public ministry, which began when he was about thirty years old (Luke 3:23), and lasted only three years, until he was crucified.

What all of this silence about the Lord's upbringing, youth, and early adulthood suggests is that outwardly, Jesus' life was not much different than anyone else's. But the few hints and glimpses we do get tell us that within that unremarkable outward life, there was intense learning and growth going on in Jesus' spirit. The story of Jesus as a boy in the Temple is bracketed by two statements that speak of this inner growth, and its outer effects:

And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him. (Luke 2:40)

And at the end of the story:

And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in divine and human favor. (Luke 2:52)

This inner growth in wisdom and stature is shown in our Gospel reading for today, as well as in the Lord's public ministry, where he drew on all those years of study, learning, enlightenment, and spiritual growth to do his work of teaching, preaching, and healing.

Today's story also tells us something else: at the age of twelve, Jesus already had a very clear sense that he had come from God, and that his work in life was to be the work of God. When Mary said to him, "Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you," he reminded her of who his real father was: "Didn't you know that I had to be doing my Father's work?" Even while learning the trade of carpentry, he was learning his true calling.

Still, the New Testament gives us only a very slim basis for any conclusions about the inner life of Jesus as he grew up. So we turn once again to the Old Testament, and Swedenborg's interpretation of it, to gain more insight. And when it comes to the Lord's process of learning and growth in knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom, the story is told spiritually in the account of Abram's stay in Egypt.

Let's unpack some of the meaning of our Old Testament story.

When the story begins, Abram is living in the southern part of the Holy Land. As I mentioned last week, the Holy Land represents the spiritual side of our life. And as I also mentioned, Jesus in his infancy and early childhood was already feeling the promptings of spiritual and divine life within him. He had already felt God calling him, and in following that call, had traveled inwardly from a life focused on the outward things of this world and its society to a life focused on the deeper things of the spirit.

But it says, "There was a famine in the land." Physically speaking, famines are a lack of food, usually brought about by a lack of water causing crops to fail. Spiritual famines are a lack of "food" to nourish the mind and heart. In other words, they are a lack of knowledge, understanding, and in some cases, a lack of goodness and love. Here, though, the famine is a famine of the mind.

As this famine arrives within the Lord, he has already reached some level of spiritual awareness; he is already living in the Holy Land. And he has been traveling toward the south--toward a state of greater conscious enlightenment. Yet he feels the pinch of famine: he realizes that he does not have the deeper, religious knowledge that he wants and needs to continue on his spiritual path. He is famished for want of inner nourishment: for want of the basic facts of spiritual life. And he hungers for that knowledge so much that he leaves the Holy Land of life focused on spiritual things, and spends time in Egypt, which was the region's granary, and which therefore represents our states of knowledge and learning.

We have a similar experience, both as children and at the beginning of our spiritual life. As children, after our earliest years in which we are driven largely by promptings from within and responses to what happens around us, our conscious, thinking mind begins to wake up, and we hunger for knowledge. We want to know about everything around us. We begin asking anyone who will answer, "What's that?" "How does this work?" "Why does it do that?" "Why does so-and-so do such-and-such?" "What does this mean?" As children, our minds are like sponges, soaking up all the knowledge and experience we can get.

We go through a similar phase when we take our first conscious steps toward spiritual living. Having decided that we wish to refocus our lives from outward accomplishments and pleasures to inward goals and spiritual growth, we quickly realize how little we know about the worlds of spirit. And why would we know about the inner life? Up to that point we had been pursuing the world and its knowledge. So we feel "a famine not for food, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord" (Amos 8:11).

In these early times in our conscious spiritual life we eagerly seek out religious insight and inner knowledge. We read the Bible and other spiritual books; we attend lectures, services, and workshops; we seek out sources of deeper knowledge and insight to feed our hunger. We eagerly soak up every spiritual fact that we can get our hands on. We are almost childlike in our ability to absorb new knowledge about this vast new field of experience.

And so we go to our Egypt, our spiritual granary. And if our path is a Christian one, that granary is especially the Word of God--the Old and New Testaments--where God has stored up an infinite supply of spiritual nourishment for us. When we start out as new Christians, we want to learn all about the life and teachings of Jesus. We want to know also the stories and teachings of the Old Testament, which tell us of our spiritual origins and the events and battles of our long spiritual journey toward enlightenment and love.

Jesus as a young child felt this famine, this desire for "hearing the words of the Lord," very intensely. And so, amid the usual routines of daily life, he applied himself to the study of the Hebrew Scriptures, where the Lord spoke to the people of his culture, giving them the water and the bread of spiritual life. And by the age of twelve, he had already gained such understanding and wisdom that when he was sitting among the teachers in the temple courts, both listening and asking questions, "everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers."

However, it was not necessarily a smooth road getting from "understanding and answers" to true inner wisdom. Once Abram reaches Egypt, we have the strange story of his saying that his wife Sarai was his sister. (And she was, in fact, his half-sister, as we learn in a parallel story in Genesis 20.) Abram, fearful that the Egyptians would kill him for his beautiful (though over sixty-five-year-old!) wife Sarai, has her tell them that she is his sister. And they do, in fact, take her for Pharaoh, while making Abram rich in "sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels" for her sake.

What can this possibly mean? How can this story of deception and subterfuge tell us anything good about our spiritual life, let alone the inner life of the Lord--who was supposed to be the perfect human being?

One of the fascinating aspects of the Bible's spiritual meaning is that it often tells a story very different--even opposite--from the literal meaning. Whenever the Bible mention's "God's wrath," for example, Swedenborg interprets it instead as God's love, which human evil is opposed to, and therefore is experienced as wrath by those engaged in evil.

However, in the case of Sarai as Abram's wife and his sister, the spiritual meaning is not all that different from the literal, though of course, it is on the level of the mind instead of the level of the body.

In the Bible, men usually correspond to truth and understanding, while women correspond to love and motivation. However, when they are specifically presented as husband and wife, the meaning often reverses, and the husband stands for love, while the wife stands for truth and understanding.

This reversal is based on a vital fact of Swedenborg's gender map that is often overlooked or passed by in silence. Though outwardly intellect predominates in men, and feeling in women, inwardly this is reversed. Men, who are outwardly truth, are inwardly love. And we find, as we study the lives of the men who were great physical and mental adventurers, that within the physical skills and intellectual achievements, there is a driving desire, a motivating force of love, pushing them along to their great achievements. Meanwhile women, who are outwardly love, are inwardly truth. Outwardly women are much better than men at treading he maze of human relationships, forming close and warm friendships, and focusing on human feelings and the human heart. Yet this comes from an inner insight into the patterns of human and spiritual existence that men rarely attain to.

And so, like the ancient Eastern symbol of yin and yang, the love that outwardly characterizes woman is the driving force within men, while the truth that men show outwardly is embedded deep within woman.

So here, in the story of Abram and Sarai, we find that Abram represents, in the Lord, the heavenly and divine love he felt deep within himself--the divine love that was his inner self--while Sarai represents the knowledge and understanding that was growing and developing in his conscious, thinking mind.

This was the contest taking place within the heart and mind of Jesus as he grew up, and that also takes place within us as we begin our spiritual life: Will all our wonderful new spiritual insight be a matter of mere intellectual knowledge, beautiful to contemplate, and a pleasure to claim as our own--but barren? Will our "Sarai" of spiritual understanding become Pharaoh's wife? In other words, will all the spiritual facts and understanding that we eagerly soak in when we first commit ourselves to a spiritual path become mere knowledge to adorn our minds and give us the pleasure of intelligence, without producing any fruits?

Or will our inner "Sarai," our understanding of spiritual reality, remain married to our "Abram": the inner, heavenly love that it properly belongs with?

As a young boy, Jesus felt the allure of being a brilliant intellect and highly praised teacher. If he was already astounding the learned teachers of the Law at twelve, what dazzling heights of intellectual achievement could he have attained as a lifelong academic?

But that would have diverted him off his path, just as it does for us when we get side-tracked into mere learning. We are not given spiritual insight to be dazzled by its beauty, and by our own brilliance. The Lord satisfies our hunger for understanding so that we may move beyond spiritual barrenness to rich fruitfulness. When we have been enriched by deeper insights, it is time to return to our true calling of showing God's love every day. Amen.



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