December 30, 2018
This morning’s Gospel reading is the only story we get of Jesus between the infancy narratives (only found in Matthew and Luke) and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus, at least for a boy of his time, is at the cusp of adulthood. In Jesus’ world, age twelve or thirteen marked the end of childhood and the beginning of the transition to adulthood. It marks the shift from the home - a primarily feminine space - to the public world - dominated by men, as a boy of Jesus’ age, for instance, would begin to take up the business or trade of his father.
As I read today’s Gospel lesson, it struck me that Jesus’ transition from childhood to adulthood is about as complicated as it is for us. We mark that transition a bit later - with graduation from High School and turning 18. Our high school and (for some) our college years then become this time to learn how to “adult” by starting to take up adult responsibilities for ourselves, before we finally get all adult responsibilities for ourselves (which, as I’m still learning, at times, isn’t all it has cracked up to be). These years are a time of transition, where we’re no longer fully children nor fully adults. We begin taking on adult responsibilities. We begin working. We begin dating. We begin to push our boundaries with our parents. We experiment. We do things just because we think we’re old enough to do it (whether or not our parents agree that we’re old enough). When I turned eighteen, I stayed out until midnight just because I finally could legally drive past 11pm - I think I got home at 12:05am (yeah, I was just *that* rebellious). My friends did more of that pushing of boundaries than I did. It is a difficult transition for both children and parents as we have to relearn our relationships as parents and with children and adult children with parents. And, as I think about it, sometimes we continue to relearn it. I’m 26, and I’m still learning how to navigate that adult child/ parent relationship. And my folks are still learning how to navigate that as well.
It strikes me that it must have been just as hard (if not harder) for Mary and Jesus to navigate this as it is for us. Jesus pushes his boundaries by staying back in Jerusalem, without telling his parents. Perhaps he thought that he was old enough to be there and to travel on his own. Or perhaps, like many a preeteen, he just wasn’t thinking fully through the consequences of his actions. Mary and Joseph go on toward home, travelling for about a day before realizing that Jesus was not part of the group, and turned back. (Before we get too hard on Mary and Joseph for not noticing, when travelling as a group, it wouldn’t be uncommon to not see children for a whole day) They searched for days. I’m not a parent; I can only imagine the panic they were experiencing. Where did he get separated from the group? Was he kidnapped? Was he wondering around, lost, hungry and confused? Was Jesus scared? Or did something worse happen?
When I was seventeen, I went to the Lutheran Youth Gathering in New Orleans. I went with a friend’s church, not having a youth group to go with at my own church. Every day, we went to the Superdome for worship. We gathered with 37,000 of our closest friends. Usually, on the way out, the speakers were outside and we could briefly meet with them. In the chaos of leaving, one day, I got separated from my group. I turned around and realized that I didn’t recognize a single person around me (I barely even knew the group that I was travelling with, and suddenly I knew noone). No one had noticed. At the time, I had a cell phone, so I stayed where I was, trying to remain calm, and, I began calling the youth group leaders. They didn’t hear their phones ring. Eventually, what seemed like an eternity later, I got a hold of one of the leaders - they had made it all the way back to the hotel before anyone had noticed that I wasn’t there. I’m thankful that I had my cell phone, and all was fine. Yet the panic was real. I was in a city I didn’t know. Surrounded by people I didn’t know.
While roles were reversed, I imagine that Mary and Joseph were having a similar fear, except far worse, with the panic increasing every day that they were separated. Their son was in a large city that he was likely unfamiliar with. Surrounded by the thousands of other pilgrims that had ascended to Jerusalem for that year’s Passover celebration. Finding one person in the mass of people and in the streets of Jerusalem, especially during the festival of Passover, would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Eventually, Mary and Joseph went to the Temple. I wonder what brought them to the Temple. Did they really expect to find Jesus there - was it one of the expected places to check off the list of places to look? Or did they go there to connect with God in their grief and fear, and happened to stumble upon him there? While the text doesn’t give us the answer, I suspect it was the latter, as they were astonished when they saw him. Even as a preteen, Jesus was showing up in the places where we might least expect. And I have a feeling that Mary’s tone as she spoke to Jesus wasn’t cool, calm, and collected. But rather her voice was an a tone that mixed anger, grief, anxiety, and relief at seeing Jesus, sitting in the temple, in one piece.
Unlike in typical art depicting this scene, Jesus is not teaching the teachers, but listening and asking questions. In other words, he doesn’t take a place above the teachers present in the temple, but engages them in seemingly mutual conversation, learning from them as much as they learn from him. And he seemed to learn from this experience as well, as the text states that, from here on, Jesus was obedient to his parents.
Today, Jesus’ parents see him beginning to become the adult that he will be. Beyond, the anxiety that this particular incident caused them, I think Mary and Joseph begin to see what it means to have a Son who will be the Savior of all people. It certainly won’t be an easy journey - it leads to the cross. It is a journey that will be filled with anxiety and uncertainty of what will happen with their beloved son. I can only imagine how they had to relearn their relationships and their boundaries as Jesus grew in wisdom and in years. I can only imagine how difficult it was to navigate their lives and relationships as Jesus began his ministry, began to hang out with the “wrong” people, and eventually marched to Jerusalem and to his death (and resurrection).
As I think about the Christmas season, I wonder, why this story? Why this today - on the first Sunday of Christmas? Beyond that it is the only story that we get between Jesus’ nativity and Jesus’ adulthood. Then I think about what we celebrate at Christmas - Jesus’ incarnation. This is a wonderful story of God’s incarnation in Jesus. While Jesus is wise beyond his years as he engages in dialogue in the Temple, we also see that he’s living life not so far removed from our own preteen years - or the preteen years of our kids. So often, when we think about Jesus, we think primarily about Jesus’ divinity - how Jesus is God. Christmas is a time for us to celebrate that not only Jesus is God, but also God is human in Jesus. And God becomes incarnate and lives among us.
Today, we encounter Jesus in the messiness of his preteen years. We encounter the messiness of his transition from his family life (and seemingly boring or typical childhood - nothing is written about it in the canonical Gospels) to the adult that brings Salvation to all - especially to the lost, the least, and the lonely - and willingly marches to the cross. We encounter the messiness of his relationships with his parents - with the treasures and the anxiety that came with it. We encounter a Jesus who is willing to learn and to ask questions. In Jesus, God doesn’t shy away from being human, but becomes really and truly human. In becoming a child, in becoming an awkward preteen, Jesus enters into our messiness - the messiness of our relationships, the messiness of all our transitions (including but not limited to our transition from childhood to adulthood), and the messiness of following Christ as we do God’s work of salvation with our own hands. And we encounter a Jesus who encourages us to learn and to ask questions of each other, of our faith, of our God. Because Jesus lived that messiness, we are free to live into the messiness of what it means to be human and to live truly and deeply into our humanity - so that we may also live in solidarity with our fellow humanity in the messiness of their lives.