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The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up
December 19, 2004 (Candlelight Service)
1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.
2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
3 All went to their own towns to be registered.
4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.
5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.
7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see--I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:
11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
December 1904. One hundred years ago. Japan was beating up on Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. The World’s Fair was wrapping up in St. Louis, after a visit from President Theodore Roosevelt. The Wright Brothers’ flight, performed a year earlier, had not received much coverage, so people were still wondering if people would ever fly.
Then a flying boy appears. His name was Peter Pan. In December 1904, this classic character pops up on a London stage in a play called Peter Pan, Or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up. The play is turned into a novel in 1911, and later an animated film, television musical and live-action movie. Peter invites a girl named Wendy to travel via fairy dust to Neverland, to be a mother to his gang of Lost Boys. Many adventures unfold, including battles with Peter’s archenemy Captain Hook, but in the end Wendy decides to return to her family.
Looking in on Wendy after her return, Peter knows that he will never experience the happiness of growing up with a mother and father and brother and sister — it is “the one joy from which he must be forever barred.”
And then, years later, he returns to see Wendy again, and is shocked to discover that she has grown up. She is a mature woman, with a daughter of her own. Peter is frightened by the sight of her, and gives a cry of pain.
“I am old, Peter,” Wendy tells him. “I am ever so much more than 20. I grew up long ago.”
“You promised not to!” he protests.
“I couldn’t help it,” she explains. “I am a married woman, Peter.”
He sits down on the floor and sobs, not able to accept the fact that Wendy has become a woman. He cannot comprehend that she grew up, for Peter will always be the “Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.”
Many people would like Jesus to be the boy who does not grow up, to be the baby who stays in the manger. After all, this is a magical time of year. The lights, and carols, and decorations, all combine to evoke the memory of Christmas past, of good times and better years. It fills us with what one observer has called a sort of “Peterpandemonium,” in which we long to go back to simpler and more cherished times.
We love the Christ child in the stable, the shepherds kneeling, the angel chorus singing, the magi worshiping, camels trekking across a midnight desert under the light of a brilliant nova leading the way, the holy family gathered. We love this. We wish it could be this way all year. We are not really enthusiastic about this child leaving the crib, becoming man and dying on a cross, but this child will grow up.
There is something about both Peter Pan and the baby Jesus that appeals to the child in us. Peter lives a life of fun and adventure, without a single adult responsibility. Jesus is born into a loving and nurturing family, and is immediately greeted by the songs of angels and the adoration of shepherds.
What a life these two seem to be living! It is a life filled with unconditional love. It is a life filled with fun and adventure and freedom from grown-up responsibilities. Who wants to focus on adult concerns when we have got Neverland and Bethlehem, fairy dust and flying angels, wondrous adventures and “good news of great joy”? All this makes us want to stay a child forever.
Both the Christmas story and the Peter Pan adventure make it clear that being a grown-up is often not much fun. We do not envy Mary and Joseph, who have to trek all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem to satisfy an imperial bureaucratic requirement, and then they face the stress of searching for lodging in the overbooked town of Bethlehem.
And who among us really wants to be Wendy at the end of the Peter Pan story, when she sits “huddled by the fire, not daring to move, helpless and guilty, a big woman”? It is a bittersweet moment when she says, “O Peter, don’t waste the fairy dust on me”—as if to say not much magic exists in maturity.
But let’s not jump to the conclusion that perpetual childhood is some kind of paradise. Jesus has his moment of birthday glory and praise, for sure, but then he is carted off to Egypt to escape the homicidal hysteria of bloodthirsty King Herod who murdered all the children of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:13-23). Being a refugee is no picnic, whether you are on the run in the first century or the 21st century. And the danger is doubled if you are a helpless newborn, defenseless against the threats posed by soldiers and bandits and accidents and disease.
As for Peter Pan, he never really develops as a person because he stubbornly holds on to his Neverland view of reality. He shuts out grown-up thoughts, feelings and responsibilities, and as a result never experiences mature human emotion. He does not come to know the joy — but also the heartbreak — of falling in love, marrying, having children, raising a family, holding down a job, experiencing success, enduring failure, growing old. He’s a victim of the “Peter Pan Syndrome” — a refusal to grow up, settle down and commit.
It is a sad commentary on some Christians that they are afflicted with “Peter Pan Syndrome.” You know the type. They are the gossipers and backbiters, those who like to stir up trouble and cause discord. These “Peter Pan Christians” are the ones who do not have a single thing to say about living in the love and power of Jesus, but they will argue until they are blue in the face over what color the carpet should be in the sanctuary, or what color grass we should plant on the church grounds. They need to “grow up” in Christ.
The “Peter Pan Syndrome” did not afflict Jesus in any way, which is why we should look at him as The Boy Who Did Grow Up — even as we celebrate his birth. When we read about the trek to Bethlehem, we are invited to recall the adult Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. It was a journey that ended in the cross. When we imagine the visit of the shepherds, we are reminded that Jesus grew up to become the Good Shepherd. When we hear about the visit of the angels to Bethlehem, we are propelled forward — across a lifetime — to the appearance of the angels at the empty tomb on Easter morning.
Unlike Peter Pan, Jesus did grow up, and it is only through the lens of his growth, ministry, death, and resurrection that we can truly appreciate the wonder of his birth.
Luke 2:40 tells us that the child Jesus “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” At age 12, he went with his parents to the festival of the Passover in Jerusalem, and then he slipped off to the temple without his parents’ knowledge. His disappearance frightened and frustrated his mother and father, but Jesus simply took this time of separation as a sign of his coming of age. “Why were you searching for me?” he asked them. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (v. 49).
For Jesus, growing up meant breaking out of a sentimental Christmas-card world of family togetherness. It meant discovering for himself what God was calling him to be and to do.
Jesus also settled down, but not with a wife and kids. Contrary to what you may have read in The Da Vinci Code, the family of Jesus did not begin with a marriage to Mary Magdalene, but instead it started with the calling of twelve disciples and a number of other faithful followers. When pressed to describe his family, Jesus said, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (8:21).
That is the family that Jesus settled down with, a family that has grown to the point that it now numbers some two billion Christians across the globe. We are part of this great family of Christ, and we are challenged to carry forward its family values — not by putting up the Christmas decorations in a particular way, but by hearing the word of God and doing it. According to Jesus, this means loving our enemies and doing good to those who hate us. It means blessing those who curse us and praying for those who abuse us. It means doing to others as we would have them do to us.
This is not a childish Peter Pan approach to problem solving, but a mature Christian method for achieving peace and reconciliation. It is not an easy technique, nor is it free of pain or sacrifice. But for those who want to settle down with Jesus, it’s a central family value. Martin Luther King captured the force of this passage when he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”
Finally, Jesus avoided the Peter Pan Syndrome by being a person who made a commitment. At his baptism, he received the Holy Spirit and the blessing of God. In his temptation, he was protected and guided by the word of God. In his ministry, he followed the Spirit and brought good news to the poor, release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he submitted himself completely to the will of God. On the cross, he cried out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (23:46).
Jesus was all about commitment, and keeping the promises he had made to God. His growth took him far beyond the narrow world of self-interest and personal pleasure, and his maturation led him through sacrifice and suffering to a place that could be reached only by total faith in the power of God. Jesus never stopped growing even when he was nailed to the cross, even when God carried him into the glory of resurrection life.
That’s a place that Peter Pan can never reach. The kingdom of God is an Everland — not a Neverland — waiting for those who grow up in the faith, not for those who insist on staying behind in Neverland.
So let us celebrate the birth of Jesus, and join the shepherds and angels in praising God for the gift of the Christ child. To us is “born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (2:11).
He is the Boy Who Will Grow Up. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 01/13/05