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"Teenagers in the Bible"

a sermon by Sid Burgess, Edgewood PC
Birmingham, Alabama
August 8, l999
Text: Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28


"What was Jesus like as a teenager?" That question that came to the pastor’s study this week, and my answer was brief. We know that Jesus, fully human, had to navigate adolescence, just like all the rest of us, but we have no record of it. There is nothing in the New Testament about Jesus as a teenager. We know that he "grew in wisdom and in strength, in favor with God and humankind" (Lk 2:52), but we have not details. The story jumps from our Lord’s bar mitzvah at the age of 12 to his baptism at the age of 30 or so.

The Bible has other stories about teenagers, though, and here is one today--our reading from the book of Genesis: "Joseph, being seventeen years old . . . . " Joseph, of the famous multi-colored coat , is seventeen years old when he walks out onto the stage of Israel’s history.

And there are several other teens mentioned, too. At age 13, Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, endures a painful rite of passage (Gen. 17:25). No fourteen or fifteen year olds that I could find, but sixteen year olds abound. It seems that a whole string of Judah’s kings came to the throne at age sixteen. From 2 Kings 14:

All the people of Judah took Azariah, who was sixteen years old, and made him king to succeed his father . . ., (who had gone to) sleep with his ancestors.

From 2d Chronicles 26:

Uzziah was sixteen years old when he began to reign, and he reigned fifty-two years in Jerusalem. 4 He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, just as his father . . . had done.

Another teenager, this one named Jehoiachin "was eighteen years old when he began to reign . . ," but not for long. The book of 2nd Kings says the young fellow ruled for just three months before he and his whole family were taken off into exile in Babylon, because, the ancient texts contends, Jehoiachin "did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, just as his father had done." (2 Kings 24)

Long before any of these rulers there was Joseph, seventeen years old and shepherding the flock with his brothers. I guess we know more about a year in the life of this teenager than any other in the Bible. We know that his father did Joseph no favors by showing his youngest son an all-too obvious favoritism.

3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children,
because he was the son of his old age;
and he had made him a long robe with sleeves.

And we know Joseph was a bit of a tattletale:

Joseph, being seventeen years old,
was shepherding the flock with his brothers . . . ,
(and) brought a bad report of them to their father.

This, of course, does not endear Joseph to his older brothers. Our storyteller tells us,

"They hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him (v.2)."

For his part, Joseph seems to have had a bit of an ‘attitude.’ When sent by his father to check up on his brothers, he wears the spiffy coat of many colors. To wear this expensive floor-length robe, with its long sleeves, out into the pasture would be like wearing a coat and tie, or an ‘after five’ dress, out onto a Habitat job site. The ‘dress clothes’ are a clear signal that Joseph has no intention of doing any work.

You know the rest of the story. Joseph’s jealous brothers do a number on him: strip him of that fancy robe; sell him off as a slave for 20 pieces of silver; and, report to their father that the boy was killed by a wild animal. As you can see, the life as a teenager has always been somewhat difficult. But, like most teenagers, Joseph survives--even thrives in the midst of adversity. He is taken off to Egypt, where rises from slave to prime minister. When famine strikes his homeland, Joseph is a position to rescue the very brothers who abused him. As a result, the whole clan joins him in Egypt, where they "become a great nation, mighty and populous" (Dtr. 26:5).

All very well, you say, but you have heard this story before. What is the point? What can we learn here? I’m glad you asked these questions, because I see several points.

First, God can use parental error. Parents should not show favoritism, though we inevitably do. Adults are human, too. Humans have favorites, at home, at work, in the classroom, even at church. It’s not right, it’s not fair. It hurts both the favored person, and others, too. But God can use even our mistakes. No, I don’t believe God planned to have Joseph’s father show favoritism, but when Jacob does so, and when the brothers react as they do, divine power is able to bring good out of bad. God is able to put parental weakness to good use.

Second, God can use teenage indiscretion. Young Joseph had no business wearing his fancy robe out into the fields. Joseph was "flaunting" his favored position, virtually daring his brothers to challenge him, and they did. Their plot should have succeeded. Joseph should have disappeared from the history of Israel. One big mistake, and your out of the game. That is the often the rule in popular culture. The ancient storytellers want us to see that with God, the rules are different. Youthful indiscretion is forgiven, even put to good use by God’s own power to rescue and redeem.

Third, God can use sibling rivalry. Those boys were old enough to know better. Know better than to take unfair advantage of their youngest sibling. Know better than to betray him to slave traders. The brash boy, Joseph, may have been insufferable, but obnoxious does not justify kidnapping and slave trading. Even so, God uses the injustices of these siblings. Through their abuse of Joseph this family, and the future nation of Israel, will be saved.

So, what is in this story for us? This ancient tale of poor parental judgment, youthful indiscretion, and sibling rivalry? Just as God uses these mistakes, God can use our blunders, too.

Parental error is not the end of the world. I like to say that God is the perfect parent none of us had, nor ever will be. Parents make mistakes, and children are often hurt, disappointed, even put at a disadvantage at times. But by God’s mercy our children survive, and most will thrive. By God’s mercy, our children will come through childhood and adolescence, and God will put them to work doing good.

Screwing up as a teenager--failing a course, banging up a car, losing money, choosing the wrong friends. Sooner or later, everyone makes mistakes: make poor judgments, forgets, overlooks, takes for granted, bends or breaks a rule. There is and has been only been one Perfect Person. The rest of us---gotta do the best we can. This is what the story of Joseph wants us to see. What do you do next when you’ve landed in hot water? Gotten in trouble? You do what you can to make the best of a bad situation. Get up, dust off your britches, and keep on going--because God is not through with you. God still has work for you to do--no one’s mistakes disqualify them from participating in God’s work of promoting--and practicing--peace and justice on this earth.

Finally, injuries inflicted by sibling rivalry, ugly as they are, are rarely mortal wounds. Joseph’s ultimate forgiveness of his brothers for their terrible abuse models the forgiveness God would have us grant to our brothers and sisters, our parents, perhaps even to ourselves. With or without siblings, growing up is hard to do. The world is so big, and in childhood we are so small, so needy, so vulnerable. Families inevitably make mistakes; children and siblings are often hurt, sometimes even abused. Thus the biblical mandate: forgive one another as God has forgiven us. Forgive one another, and get on with the work of God has given us--feeding the hungry, welcoming strangers, and caring for Creation.

So, there is nothing in the Bible about Jesus as a teenager, but a great deal in the Bible about growing up. And the proverbial bottom line is delivered by our psalm for today.

In all circumstances:

4 Seek the Lord and his strength;
seek God’s presence continually.
5 Remember the wonderful works God has done,
his miracles, and the judgments God uttered . . . . (Ps. 105)
and know you are a child of this very God,
and eligible for, entitled to, and promised
the same divine care.

Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever. Amen.