Some years ago, I returned to a former parish to preach at a special occasion. As the worship leaders prepared for the procession, the crucifer, a teenager came over and said, “Do you remember me? You baptized me as a baby on Christmas Eve!” That baptism was just a month before I left to accept a call in another state, and I hadn’t seen her since. I’m proud to say that I refrained from stating the obvious: “My goodness, you’ve grown!”
The feeling I had that day is similar to the one I had when I read today’s Gospel. One is tempted to say, “My goodness, Jesus has grown!” Just last Sunday we were reading about a barely pregnant Mary visiting the very pregnant Elizabeth. On Monday night we celebrated Christmas Eve and read about Jesus’ birth. Tuesday was Christmas Day when we celebrated that birth. Now, just five days later, Jesus is a pre-teen—complete with superior attitude and smart mouth. It’s enough to make your head spin. And what’s even worse is next Sunday is Epiphany and we’ll be back to the baby Jesus with the story of the magi and King Herod.
If you take Jesus’ name out, it’s surprising how ordinary this story is—so ordinary it could be an after-school special or Disney Channel movie. It’s a quaint story about a minor domestic crisis. There are no miracles, no revelatory pronouncements, no enigmatic parables about the nature of the kingdom of God. It’s just a simple little story about a devout Jewish family going on holiday to the temple. A group from the village travels to and from Jerusalem on foot with groups from other villages. As with any rural and traditional culture, there is a large network of aunts, uncles, cousins and friends along for the trip, and a child would feel as comfortable walking with the others as with his own family. All very normal—until Jesus turns up missing.
Joseph and Mary had assumed that he was hanging out with friends or relatives. It’s only when they discovered he wasn’t anywhere to be found that they hurried back to Jerusalem. In the days before police departments, Amber Alerts and missing person bulletins, they were on their own to find him. Can you imagine the panic they felt as the hurried from place to place for three days, finding no sign of him?
Then, as now, the last place you would think to look for a 12-year-old boy was the church, but, finally, they went to the temple. There he was sitting in on a graduate student seminar, holding his own in the discussion (“and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers”). Some people have turned this into a story about Jesus revealing his divine nature through an extraordinary and spiritual understanding of the Scriptures. That’s not necessary. They would have been astounded that any pre-teen boy knew enough about the Scriptures to ask the sort of questions Jesus was asking.
“It is time now for internalizing the meaning of Christ’s coming and for expressing that meaning in personal and social life. This is especially true of Luke 2:41-52, which offers a childhood experience of Jesus as a model of growth toward others and toward God”
In Luke 2:48-49, the dialogue between Mary and her son is interesting in light of the later developed idea that Jesus is both “fully human and fully divine.” On the divine side of the equation, Luke portrays Mary as referring to Joseph as his father—”your father and I”—and Jesus quite pointedly responded: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house.” On the human side, the boy has behaved exactly like what he is—a boy. An exceptionally smart, focused and devout boy to be sure, but a boy nonetheless.
Only a boy would get so focused on what he was interested in that all else would fade away, including his parents’ feelings and needs. Only a boy would be so impressed with himself that he couldn’t recognize the damage he had done—indeed would blame the victims for it, telling his parents, “It’s your fault you’re upset. You should have known where I was. Honestly, you people don’t understand anything.” As a parent, I suspect there is a significant amount of one-sided conversation and extra chores lurking behind the little phrase “was obedient to them” in verse 51. Jesus was a special child, but he was still a child, and had a lot of growing up to do.
The Revised Common Lectionary Committee picked this Gospel reading for this day for a reason. Fred Craddock summarized it this way: “It is time now for internalizing the meaning of Christ’s coming and for expressing that meaning in personal and social life. This is especially true of Luke 2:41-52, which offers a childhood experience of Jesus as a model of growth toward others and toward God” (Preaching Through the Christian Year, C. 1994, page 47).
Just as it took time for Jesus to grow up and grow into his identity as the Christ (“And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor) and Mary had to meditate upon and learn from her experiences with this odd child (“His mother treasured all these things in her heart”), we are always in the process of beginning to understand what it means, in our time and in our place, to be recipients of the gift of the Christ child in our lives. Like the boy Jesus, we will often go off in wrong directions and make missteps because of a combination of enthusiasm and naivete. Like his mother Mary, we will often be confused and not a little frightened by what it means to have the Christ child as part of our life.
But in the end, we can be assured that it is a good thing to have Christ in our life, to be Christians, “little Christs” to one another. As we seek each day to follow where Jesus leads us, we can trust that God hasn’t forgotten us. He was there at our baptism, there when the pastor intoned the words “child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Amen” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 231).
Amen and amen!