Now every year his parents went to
for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem , but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Jerusalem , and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. (NRSV) Nazareth
After the last candles were extinguished and the building was locked up tight on Christmas Eve, Ben and I headed north on the 5 to my sister's house in Mountain House, California. The big plan was to surprise my nieces, Gracie and Maddie, on Christmas morning. Even though we arrived well after midnight, I was so anxious to see the girls that I haven't woken up so early on Christmas in 20 years. When Maddie padded downstairs in her footie pjs and saw Uncle Ben's shoes, she thought they were Santa's. Mission accomplished. We had a wonderful visit, from start to finish. Just in the time since we saw them last, Gracie's learned hundreds of new words and developed an attention span long enough to listen to stacks of library books. Maddie easily works 100-piece puzzles and can totally outwit her Aunt Katherine at hide-and-go-seek. I looked for that child for a good fifteen minutes one morning, and she was right under my nose, quiet as a church mouse. The days when she would go hide only to jump out and shout "here I am" as soon as I started looking for her are over.
It is an amazing thing to watch children learn and grow. Ben and I have six nieces and nephews with another on the way, and witnessing their journey through childhood is a true gift.
The scripture we're pondering today is the only canonical account of Jesus as a child—the only such story that is included in our Holy Scriptures. Many, many more stories have been told about Jesus as a boy. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, an ancient text that was written a couple centuries after the gospel of Luke, imagines the Savior accomplishing amazing feats while yet a child. And just last year, Anne Rice, formerly of vampire novels, wrote a book narrated by a twelve-year-old Jesus.
The impulse to imagine what Jesus was like as a boy is a strong one. As Christians, we believe that the babe born in Bethlehem was fully human and fully divine. We testify that his nativity in ancient Judea ushered in a new realm of God's reconciling work. We are here today because we have heard and responded to the call to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. It's only human that many Christians have wondered just how old Jesus was when he took his first step.
As much as we may wish for a chance to page through Mary's scrapbook of the early years of her holy son, we have instead the gospels. They are less interested in recording the childhood adventures of Jesus than in tapping into the meaning of his life and ministry. This episode from the Gospel of Luke, though cherished as one of the few windows into Jesus' early life, is included in scripture because of what it reveals about God.
The Jesus we encounter in this scripture is just like any adolescent. How many twelve-year-olds have made nervous wrecks of their parents by disappearing into a crowd? How many parents have been reduced to tears of angry relief when the lost child is found safe and sound? The story here, on one level, is as ordinary as any family lore. You can almost hear the echoes of its retelling around the holiday dinner table for years to come. The kid who worried everyone rolls his eyes and blushes while the family patriarch recounts the embarrassing highlights one more time.
And yet on another level, this story is anything but ordinary. The wayward child is not off fishing or making mischief in the marketplace. He has found his way to the center of his community's religious life and has astounded the learned rabbis with his articulate questions and wise observations. The boy in the temple is no run-of-the-mill spiritual prodigy, but the Son of God. He may have strayed from his earthly parents, but Jesus makes it clear that he had simply gone on furlough to his Heavenly Father's temple.
Luke recorded this story as a testimony to the paradox of Christmas. In this brief interlude between the birth of Christ and the inception of his ministry some thirty years later, we get a sense of what it meant for Jesus to be fully human and fully divine. The presence of God's Spirit in Jesus is clear. He doesn't simply have wisdom beyond his years; he has wisdom beyond the ages. And yet he is just a little boy, entrusted to the care of a mother and a father.
Our Lord wasn't deposited on earth as a full-grown man. He was born as any other, learned to walk and to speak as any other, and grew in his faith and understanding as any other. The Jesus we encounter in this text is actively engaged in the ordinary stuff of life. He practiced the Jewish faith, journeying with his family to the temple each year for Passover. He asked questions. As he increased in years he increased in wisdom, learning and growing into the one who would be our salvation.
Again, I say, we are here because we have heard and responded to the call to follow Jesus. We usually pay the most attention to his teachings and actions as an adult. But there is nothing that says we should not also follow the Jesus of this story. The path of growth and learning set forth here is not just for children and youth. The pattern for living culled from this text is a worthy way of life for God's children of all ages. Like Mary and Joseph, most of us have a hard time keeping up with Jesus. And yet keeping up with Jesus is what we are called to do as Christians.
We are on the edge of another new year. I usually am a bit of a cynic about New Years resolutions, having broken too many too count. But there is something so hopeful about turning the calendar page to a new year. There's a contemporary Christmas song that goes, "Maybe this Christmas will mean something more, Maybe this year love will appear, Deeper than ever before."
When I sang alone in the car this week, I changed the words to "new year." Maybe this New Year will mean something more. Maybe this will be the year when the long overdue change or the much-needed growth will take root and flourish.
In the Message bible, this passage concludes by saying that in the following years, Jesus grew up in both body and spirit. Other translations read that Jesus "increased in wisdom" as he increased in years. Maybe this New Year is the time to faithfully commit to growing up in spirit, to hold God's wisdom at the center of our lives if it hasn't already taken its rightful place there.
Jesus and his family made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem every year for Passover. Maybe this is the year you will make the pilgrimage to worship God every single Sunday of the year.
Jesus prayerfully studied the Holy Scriptures. Maybe this is the year you will join in on the ambitious project to read the whole bible in one year, or start attending Sunday School, or commit to participating in the Lenten Bible study a few months from now.
Jesus challenged tradition and asked probing questions. Maybe this is the year you will bravely work through your own questions of faith in the safe space of this Christian community.
Little Jesus got lost, but was found in his Father's house, doing his Father's work. Maybe this is the year we, too, will lose ourselves only to be found in God.