Leah Adler was concerned about her son Steven. He would cut off his sister's doll's heads and serve them to her on a bed of lettuce. When asked to be helpful and paint the wall of their bathroom, Steven painted everything attached to the wall-- the toilet, the mirror-- everything. Then Steven joined Boy Scouts and became fixated on the merit badge for movie making so his father bought him a Super-8 camera. When Steven filmed a full length movie and convinced his local theater to show it, his mother was relieved that he had found a hobby. Then Steven asked his mother if he could film a movie in her kitchen and told her he would need thirty cans of cherries. They cooked the cherries in a pressure cooker and Leah was thrilled that her son was making a cooking show. What she didn't know is that Steven was interested in filming exploding cherries. For years later, Leah was wiping up cherry juice that would ooze up through the cracks in her countertops! Today Steven is grown, and Leah knows that much of what she found to be concerning behavior made him who he is today-- and most of you have heard of her son, even if you haven't met him. He is the famous Steven Spielberg. (Sparks by Peter Benson, p 63-64)
Steven knew instinctively at a young age what he wanted to do. Peter Benson, President of the Search Institute, calls that instinctive passion a spark. Benson did research with hundreds of teenagers through the years, and what he found is that when teenagers find and know their sparks they are more likely to be successful in school, more likely to be socially engaged in healthy ways, more likely to be physically healthy and be involved in volunteering and making our world a better place, more likely to be hopeful about their future, have a sense of purpose, and are more likely to be good stewards of our earth. That's a pretty big list!
Think for a moment what your sparks are. If you can't think of something now, think back to when you were an 8 year old or a 12 year old and what got you excited about getting up in the morning. What engaged you so thoroughly that you lost track of time while doing it? Sparks can be anything from helping others to a specific sport or art form, or the desire to lead. They are things that we are passionate about and have been for quite some time. Your spark can even be learning new things or solving puzzles or creating relationships. They are important for us to find meaning and purpose.
I want you to turn to the neighbor in front or in back of you this morning, introduce yourself, and for thirty seconds, share a spark in your life.
In the book of Luke, we have the only story of Jesus' teen years in the Bible. And I love how convincing it is. Jesus is 12 years old, most likely the year of his bar mitzvah, going to the Temple. While he is there, he begins to ask questions. He engages the priests, the rabbis in the temple, and he doesn't want to pull himself away. We don't know what his thought processes were, of course, he is almost a teenager after all, but it he does not leave when the rest of his family and friends leave. His parents, traveling most likely with a whole group from their hometown, are not concerned at first when they don't see him that first day. But when it comes time to camp at night, and he is not among the people they know, they become very worried. They immediately go back to Jerusalem and search for him, finally finding him in the Temple itself, having engaging conversation with the priests. And this is when I have to stop and fully confess that I read this story very differently now that I am a parent than I did when I was a teen. As a parent, I know that look of surprise that he must've had on his face; the innocent arguing; I can empathize with Mary and Joseph who tell them they were worried and that he knew better than to get separated from the group. If I put myself in Jesus' place, however, I can immediately hear the echoes of defense-- I could be doing much worse things, Mom and Dad. Why wouldn't you know to look for me here?
Jesus found his spark. He was questioning, engaging, talking about God's Word. He is challenging the priests' understandings and opening their eyes even as he is thinking through his own understandings. Later on, when he is an adult, Jesus is almost always challenging the religious leaders and the ways that they are not living into their faith. And it started here- when he was young-- embarrassing his family and amazing the priests with his understanding. He found his spark-- finding new understandings and questioning the way things were always done.
We have been talking about superheroes of the Bible for the last several weeks, and I hope that you have seen the difference between superheroes of the Bible and the superheroes we lift up in our world today. I know the kids, this week in VBS, learned that God's heroes have heart, courage, wisdom, hope, and power-- which are fairly different than the things we usually envy about superheroes-- invisibility, super strength, the ability to fly, cool cars.
So I just wanted to take a few minutes and compare Jesus to a superhero. Because as he is finding his spark, he is looking at the world and how to best live out God's will in his life; and presumably, that means he could've lived out his life more like a typical superhero, and chose not to.
So what's the difference?
I'm going to compare Jesus with Superman, but these comparisons would ring true with many of our superheroes.
First of all, I think it's important to say that while many superheroes try to pretend they are human or to blend in during the day, Jesus is actually human. From the very beginning no one thinks of Jesus as superhuman. Our forefathers and mothers in the faith said that he was fully human and fully God-- both at the same time-- one did not diminish the other. And Jesus never pretended to be something he wasn't.
Secondly, Superman tries to fix the world, righting wrong and putting away all bad guys. He upholds the status quo and the goal is to get rid of all evil.
Jesus, on the other hand, doesn't try to fix anything. Jesus' goal is to heal and transform the world, helping people to see that the Kingdom of God is already here. When he is tempted in the desert to fix world hunger by changing the stones of the wilderness into bread, he resists because he knows that it wouldn't actually be helpful. Instead he spends his time healing people of physical, emotional, and spiritual illness. He actually makes the world more complex by tearing down the status quo, challenging the powers that be, and lifting up those who think they are powerless. Jesus' goal is not to rid the world of evil, but to help all of us to be reconciled to God-- to know that every one of us is a child of God and that we are loved.
If Superman was a real hero in our world, he would actually perpetuate our selfishness and passivity. We would begin to rely on him to fix everything and we would hand over our power to be an agent of transformation in this world. Superman basically works alone-- and while that is changing with our super heroes joining forces in more recent movies, they still do so basically by themselves. They work alone and have very little community; in fact, superheroes are kind of notoriously friendless. They are basically professional do-gooders.
Jesus, however, at Pentecost, promises to work within us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus chooses us-- amateurs in this world-- to be his body, and we are ALL invited into the transformation. It is not even that we are doing something to someone else; instead, Jesus invites all of us to be transformed by the Holy Spirit, to use the powers that God has given us, and to invite others in on the journey. Jesus creates community everywhere-- and Jesus' superhero league cannot be too big because we're not competing! The more the merrier.
And last, but perhaps most important in our day, I think it's really important to note that most of our cultural superheroes use the same tactics as the villains. The superheroes are nice, they're polite bullies, but they still use violence to defeat violence. It's not hard to see this in our own world. We talked about this several weeks ago-- how in the movies there's good and evil and little in between; but in our own lives, most of us live in between.
Jesus, on the other hand, resists the temptation to fight evil with evil and instead chooses to love his enemies. Rather than emulating the manipulative, abusive rulers of his day, he walked in peace; he shared power rather than hoarding it; he forgave his enemies. He knew that is the only way to transform the world.
Jesus found his spark that day, as he began to work out his own faithfulness to God. What are you doing with your spark? How can you be part of using your heart, your courage, your wisdom, your hope, and your power in this world, not to save it-- God does the saving-- but to participate in the healing and transformation? How will you be God's hero and follow in Jesus' footsteps?