Are You Making Progress?

We find ourselves in the second chapter of Luke, verses forty-one through fifty-two. According to the text, Jesus was twelve years old. (2:42) That was a significant year in the life of a young Hebrew man. For it was during that year, he began his studies to take his place among the men in the faith. Perhaps, that is why Mary and Joseph went to Jerusalem? Or perhaps, they went to Jerusalem annually for the Passover, as was required by the law. We really don’t know why they were in Jerusalem, but we do know they were returning home. The distance between Jerusalem and Nazareth is 63 miles as the crow flies. It was more like 68 miles, because no road is perfectly straight. You do the math. If you walk about 4 mph, then it would have taken 17 hours to get home. The journey was not done in isolation. The pilgrims returned home in large packs. Those packs offered the pilgrims protection. They walked with family and friends, who filled the hours of traveling with various discussions.

Jesus was twelve years old and twelve-year-old boys begin to explore their independence. It would have been natural for Jesus not to travel with his parents. Mary and Joseph assumed their son was traveling with his friends. They assumed wrong. Jesus was missing. They send out a first century “amber alert”. They asked everyone with ears the question, “Have you seen Jesus?” Everyone answered, “No!” With no other option, Mary and Joseph returned to the Golden City. (They had to go back! How do you tell God you have lost his only son?) After three days (2:46) of searching, they found Jesus in the temple. It is easy to feel both their frustration and relief. They tried to reprimand him, but their words seem to fall on deaf ears. They thought Jesus was lost, but he knew where he was the whole time. He was in his father’s house. Listen to what I am about to say.

The story of Jesus at twelve years old is really our story. It is a story for anyone who wants to make progress in the faith. Jesus models for us how to make progress. He models for us how to grow spiritually. Verse 46 tells us what Jesus did clearly. It says:

After three days they (Joseph and Mary) found him (Jesus) in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.

Let us break that verse down together.

Jesus Positioned Himself

First, Jesus positioned himself. We have covered this in the past, but it is worth reviewing. In a world of places Jesus could have been. Jesus was at the temple courts with the teachers. He should have been walking home, but he was in the temple courts with the teachers. That simple fact says great deal about Jesus’s priorities. Even into adulthood, Jesus had every reason not to attend worship, but Jesus never failed to attend worship. The Bible does not say Jesus missed worship because family was in town. The Bible does not say Jesus missed worship because the weather was too bad or nice. The Bible does not say Jesus missed worship because he was tired after laboring at the synagogue’s big fundraiser. The Bible does say Jesus attended worship because worship was a priority to him.

As a nation that is not our story. Our national theology is extremely poor. There are several reasons why. One of the reasons is worship is no longer a priority for many. Everything thing else seems more important than worship. This is not just my opinion. It is fact. According to Gallup, in 1937, 73% of all Americans belonged to a church. Today, approximately 45% of all Americans belong to a church. That is a sad fact, but the problem runs deeper.

There is a world of difference between church membership and church attendance. We can belong to a church and never worship. You can worship and never join the church. According to the Pew Research Group, 38% of Americans consider themselves regular worshippers. That means they worship once a month. How bad is the situation? We have redefined the term regular worshipper. We used to define a regular worshipper as one missed worship only once a month. Now you are considered a regular worshipper of you come once a month. How many times have you worshipped this month? One of the reasons we are not making progress in our faith development is that we are not positioning ourselves. We just don’t worship. Jesus sat in the temple courts with the teachers. Where do you sit on most Sunday mornings? Jesus positioned himself.

Jesus Listened

Second, Jesus listened. Jesus is sitting in the temple with the teachers, and he is listening to what they were saying. In other words, when Jesus was listening, Jesus was learning. You know it is true. We are not very good at listening. However, we are excellent at talking. Have you ever gone to church and tried to listen but the person next to you will not stop talking? There seems to be a national shortage of good listeners. If you don’t believe me then just google this question, how can I become a better listener?

Everyone seems to have list to help us. Even This is their list of seven

  1. Remove all distractions
  2. Be present
  3. Wait for the other person to stop talking
  4. Don’t assume anything
  5. Look at nonverbal communication
  6. Clarify
  7. Ask questions 

Do the people in your life consider you a good listener? When you come to church do you spend more time listening or talking? It is my job to communicate the divine Biblical truth in a clear way. It is your job to listen to the divine truth. American author Bryant H. McGill (born 1969) once said, “One of the most sincere forms of respect is to actually listen to what another has to say.” How much do you respect the people in your life? How much do you respect me? How much do you respect God? Are you a better talker or listener?Jesus positioned himself and listened.I don’t want to shock you, but you don’t know everything. You may want to stop talking and listen.

 Jesus Questioned 

Third, Jesus asked questions. When I was young, I lived in a home that will built in the 20’s. If you lived in a home built in the 20’s you know they weren’t built like homes today. Homes built during that decade did not have air conditioning or decks. However, they did have front porches. We never sat on the front porch, except when the weather grew hot. I have fond memories of those hot evenings because the entire neighborhood sat on their front porches at the same time. That is how we got to know our neighbors.

When I was young, I would journey to our neighbor’s front porch. We shared a driveway. Her name was Mrs. Ortmyer. I thought she was as old as the hills. She was probably my age. She served me the same snack regularly, ginger ale and soda crackers. Every night I would ask a mountain of questions. Why is it so hot in the summer? Why is it so cold in the winter? Why is the grass green and the snow white? How can birds fly and fish swim? Every evening our discussion end the same way. She would cup her hands over her ears and say, “Russell, go home! When you get older you will have all the answers you want.” I have to say it. Mrs. Ortmyer was wrong! I am older but I still have a mountain of questions. Why are some born with so much and some so little? Why are all my friends fighting the battle of the bulge, yet someone dies  every seven seconds from a lack of food? How can you raise two children in the same house, and they end up so different? Have you ever asked those kinds of questions? When I get to heaven, I have a mountain of questions for God.How many questions do you have for God?

There is nothing wrong with asking questions. Jesus asked questions. Look at verse 46 again. It says, “After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.”  There is nothing wrong with a sincere question. Asking God, a sarcastic question just shows your arrogance. Asking God, a sincere question means you are simply trying to understand. Look at it this way. If you don’t ask questions, it means you don’t care enough to try to understand. Jesus positioned himself, listened, and asked questions.Ask God all the questions you like. Don’t worry, He can handle it!

I love this story. I have told it many times. You may remember me telling it in the past. When Pablo Casals (1876-1973) reached 95, a young reporter asked him, “Mr. Casals, you are 95 years old and considered the greatest cellist that ever lived. Why do you still practice six hours a day?” Mr. Casals answered, “Because I think I’m making some progress.” As your minister, let me ask you this revealing important question: are you making any progress? I am not talking about the cello. I am talking about the faith. Are you making progress in the Christian faith?

I graduated from Mount Union College in 1979. During my daughter’s time at Mount Union the name was changed to the University of Mount Union. Only the name changed. In many ways the school is still the same. The core values never changed. It is still a good place.

Like today, students loved Spring break. The lucky ones went to Florida. I spent my Spring breaks in northeast Ohio. One year a group of guys decided to drive to Florida. They were in a hurry to escape the cold damp spring of Ohio for the warmth of Florida. To save time and money they decided to drive through. They figured it would take them about twenty-four hours, so they decided the six of them would drive in four hours shifts. I was there when they jumped in a van and headed south. To be honest, I was jealous. The bright lights of Warren did not compare to Miami. When they returned, they had a million stories. The one that was repeated the most was about the trip on the way down. In the middle of the night, it was time to change drivers. The driver exited the highway and woke up the next driver. They traded seats. When the new driver got back on the highway, he started driving north, not south. The mistake was not noticed until the next driver got behind the wheel. It was an ugly scene. The trip was extended by an additional eight hours. They had not made any progress in those four hours. So, here is the question you must answer. Are you more like Pablo Casals, making progress? Are you more like Spring breakers, making no progress? It is the question that will not go away.

Are you making progress? If you are ashamed of your answer, then do what the twelve-year-old Jesus did. First, Jesus positioned himself. Worship was a priority to Jesus. Second, Jesus listened. Stop talking and listen when you come to church to hear the divine truth. Third, Jesus questioned. I am not talking about cynical or sarcastic questions. I am talking about asking sincere questions because you simply want to understand God’s mysterious ways. Christian author Anya VonderLuft once said, “Life is not worth living unless you live it for the one who gave you life.”  Are you making progress?

Five Questions

In 1849, the Japanese painter Hokusai (1760-1849) died at the age of 89. His work spanned decades. Toward the end of his life, the artist dismissed any of his work done before the age of 70. It was only after he reached 70, that he felt like he was turning out anything worthy of note. On his deathbed Hokusai lamented, “If heaven had granted me five more years, I could have become a real painter.” His story is the story of maturity. Can I ask you two questions? First, are you getting better, or just getting older? Second, how spiritually mature are you?

We find ourselves this morning in the fourth chapter of John. According to the very first verse of our reading, Jesus is in Samaria, near the town of Sychar. It is about noon and the Master was near Jacob’s well (Ge. 48:21-22). The Master was warm from his journey, so he approached the well for a cool drink of water.Normally, people drew water from the well at the end of the day because the heat had passed. Jesus discovered a woman at the well during the hottest time of the day. Jesus and the Samaritan woman must have been quite a scene. They were a study in contrast. He was a man; she was a woman. He was a Jew; she was a Samaritan. He was sinless, she was sinful. He was spiritually mature; she was spiritually immature. This is the truth. We are much more like the sinful woman than the sinless Savior. At first sight he knew she must have a story. In his culture, men and women did not address each other in public; in his society, Jews and Samaritans did not speak at all. Jesus breaks both rules and talks to a Samaritan woman. Most of our reading is a dialogue between the two.

The Samaritan woman must have been filled with regret because her life was filled with mistakes. She just couldn’t find a decent man; she was a repeat offender. She had been married five times and was living with another man. In our society, only fifty percent of first-time marriages last. Every time you marry, your chances of a successful marriage are cut in half. That means, on her fifth wedding day her chances of a happy marriage were down to 3.1%. If she would have married number six, it was down to 1.6%. She was at the well in the middle of the day alone to hide from the harsh tongues of the other women in the community. She was the punchline of every joke in her community, and she knew it. This is the oddest thing about the story. Jesus chooses this mistake- filled woman to talk about spiritual maturity.

Our world and our churches are filled with sinful, spiritually immature people. I have never met a sinless person; I have met very few spiritually mature people. Spiritually mature people stand out in our society because there are so few. Can I ask you these questions? Do the people in your life consider you spiritually mature? Do you consider yourself spiritually mature? The Samaritan woman struggled with Jesus’s words because she was spiritually immature. Could it be we struggle with God’s ways because we are spiritually immature too?

There is a website called  It is a Christian website with the tag line, “for a new generation of non-conformists. (I consider myself a non-conformist.)That line plays off Roman 12:1-2, “do not conform to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  On November 7, 2011, they posted an article called: 5 Signs of Spiritual Maturity. That article seemed to be written for us. The article revolves around five questions. If you answer these five questions honestly, then you will discover your level of Christian maturity. Each one of these questions has Biblical roots. You may find out that you are more mature than you thought. You may discover you have some work to do. You can consider these five questions a little quiz.

This is question number one. Do you have an appetite for meat? Infants drink milk regularly, but in time they ask for solid food. When a twenty-one-year-old asks his mother to spoon feed him mashed potatoes, it is creepy and dysfunctional. When a nursing home resident can’t take a single bite, it is sad because the end is near. Spiritually mature people can’t get enough meat. They can’t get enough of the Bible. They study the Gospels. They study the entire Old Testament. They study the epistles. What part of the Bible are you studying right now? Are you studying the Bible? Have you ever really studied the Bible? Or is the Bible just too hard to understand? Maybe that is the reason you are spiritually immature. Spiritually mature people have an appetite for meat. Hebrews 5:14 says, “Solid food is for the mature.” This is question number one: do you have an appetite for meat?How mature are you?

This is question number two. Are you easily offended? Experience has taught us that mature Christians seldom get offended. The reason is simple, they see the big picture. When Jesus turned the tables over because people were using the law for personal gain, people were upset with him. Jesus didn’t care because he saw the big picture. The temple was a house of prayer, not a place of profit. Do you see the big picture, or do you only see yourself or your interests? You may have heard me say this in the past. The only thing that matters is Jesus! Our churches are filled with offended people because our churches are filled with spiritually immature people. Philippians 1:18 says, “In every way Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes. I will rejoice.” This is question number two: are you easily offended?How mature are you?

This is question number three. Is your conscience formed by scripture or opinion? One of the great attributes of a mature Christian is grace. We are saved by grace and by grace alone. It is a simple truth to understand, but it is a hard truth to live out. I have grown tired of negative, critical, and judgmental people. No one needs your permission; no one must live up to your standards. Spiritually immature people are always critical of others. Spiritually mature people understand that we are saved by grace. Romans 14:1 says, “As for one who is weak in the faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.”  This question number three: is your conscience formed by scripture or opinion? How mature are you?

This is question number four. Do you serve humbly? God uses sinners in this world to do good things because there is no one else to choose. Have you ever known anyone who boasted about what they did for their church? Have you ever known someone who boasted of something they did for God in this world? If so, then you have the perfect example of a spiritually immature person. Spiritually mature people get it. They know it is not about us, it is all about God. Do the people in your life consider you humble? 2 Corinthians 4:7 says, “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”  Do the people in your life consider you arrogant? This is question number four: do you serve humbly?How mature are you?

This is question number five. Do you credit God for success? We live in a culture that idolizes people. It may be a well-loved pastor or the pope. It may be a professional athlete, Tom Brady, or LeBron James. It may be a historical figure, like George Washington or John Wesley. That is a true sign of spiritual immaturity. Spiritually mature people understand the truth. People, both contemporary and historical, are nothing more than tools in the hands of God. It is God who deserves all the credit. I Corinthians 3:7 says, “So neither he who plants, nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”  This is question number five: do you credit God for success? How mature are you?

So how did you do with your little quiz? Did you find you are a spiritually mature person? Or did you find you have some work to do?

When I was young my grandmother came to visit us twice a year. She lived in Brooklyn, New York and we lived in Warren. I can remember going to the Greyhound bus station to pick her up. Later, she flew into the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport. It really didn’t matter where she arrived. It was always exciting to pick her up because she came with gifts. Every reunion was the same. I would run up to her and give her a big hug. She would always square my shoulders and say, “Let me look at you. Look how big you have grown.” My dad, who hated those visits because he didn’t like her, always responded, “I would hope so. If he wasn’t growing there would be something wrong.” I think he missed the point, but he wasn’t wrong. We expect healthy children to grow.

Since the Russians have invaded Ukraine, I have been wondering about all the orphans I met in Eastern Europe. I have met orphans on both sides of the conflict. One of my lingering memories comes from the Renewal Orphanage in Dmitrov, Russia. It is the home of approximately one hundred emotionally, physically, and mentally disturbed children. Each one of those children had a story. One of the boys in the orphanage stood about four foot tall. That would be fine if he was a preschooler, but he was a teenager. I don’t remember his name, but my heart went out to him. He stood with crutches and always had a smile on his face. The other children liked him and considered him a leader. Every time I saw him, I wondered what was wrong. We expect healthy children to grow. This is the truth.

God expects you to grow, and God expects you to mature spiritually! When God looks at you does he say, “Look how big you have grown!” Or does God say, “What is wrong?” Never forget, we are to be a little more like Jesus every day. It is your choice. Are you just getting older, or are you getting better? Are you going to mature, or are you going to remain a spiritual babe? The author of Hebrews said it for the ages: by this time, you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. Let me say it clearly. Grow up!