I have to confess that I was torn, this week, between these two passages. Which one would I focus on for the sermon today? On the one hand, we have what someone has called “sassy-pants Jesus”—Jesus the adolescent, scaring the daylights out of his parents by vanishing in the middle of a family trip, and then instructing both them and the teachers in the Temple when they finally do catch up with him. And on the other hand, we have Paul’s instructions to the church at Colossae, lovely and poetic words of wisdom that apply to us all, whether in or out of this season of Christmastide. So, like someone who just can’t say ‘no’ to the various offerings on the holiday table, I will attempt to touch on both passages, and see if I can’t manage somehow to bring them together.
In our passage from Luke, we have the only story to be found in scripture of Jesus when he is not either an infant or an adult… it’s a rare glimpse into his lost years. That’s not to say there aren’t other stories that exist about Jesus’ childhood and adolescence. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which did not make the final cut to become a part of scripture, is full of fascinating stories about Jesus’ childhood. It tells of his fashioning 12 swallows out of clay, and then breathing life into them and watching them take flight. It tells another story of his stretching a beam of wood so that his father might be able to finish building a bed. And it tells of Jesus cursing a schoolmate who bumped into him while running; the schoolmate falls to the ground dead. (Later young Jesus remorsefully resurrects him). I am not entirely sure why that particular gospel didn’t make it into the final version of the bible, but I have a hunch. I think it was a good call.
This story did make it in, though, and every three years it is lifted up as the gospel for the Sunday after Christmas. And one is tempted to say, “Wow! That was fast!” Just three days ago we left church on Christmas Eve with the image of the newborn Jesus in his mother’s arms, angels announcing the glorious good news to the shepherds, and then the shepherds looking on with wonder and awe. Christ is born! Let heaven and nature sing! And three days later… here we are reading of a 12-year-old boy who seems to stand at the threshold of adulthood, though his parents aren’t quite ready to see him that way.
As the story begins we are told that Jesus and his parents traveled to Jerusalem every year for the Passover. To this day, that is a goal for every devout Jew—in fact, the Seder meal, when it is celebrated anywhere else in the world, always ends with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Jerusalem is the right and proper place to celebrate the Passover, at least once in a lifetime. Jesus’ family did so annually. It was “usual” for them to do so. So the story begins, right away, by telling us something about Mary and Joseph. They are devout Jews. They are raising Jesus right—observing their religion with the best practices and customs, much as devout modern day Christian parents bring their children to church, or observant Muslims ensure that their children are schooled in the Qur’an.
Another detail the story reveals to us is the fact that Mary and Joseph do these things as part of a community… they don’t travel to Jerusalem the way my children and I will travel to my father’s house this week, as a small unit of three, traveling in isolation (in our case, in a car). Rather, they travel as part of a larger community—the people from Nazareth, where Jesus is being raised. This was the safest and most sensible way to travel. In such an entourage it would be customary for the men and older boys to walk together as a group, and the women to walk with the girls and the smallest children. And we are told that Mary and Joseph had other members of their extended families who took part in the pilgrimage. It was assumed that Jesus had fallen in with a group of cousins, aunts, uncles. Mom and dad, initially, had no reason to believe they had left their son behind.
I had a friend in seminary who was the middle child of seven. On more than one occasion, when her large family traveled together, her frazzled parents left her at a rest stop. Even in her forties, the memory of being left behind did not amuse her. Of course, at a certain moment, her family did realize what had happened, and, horrified, they sped back, to find her steaming, waiting for them. Similarly, Jesus’ parents traveled for a time unaware of his absence. But a day into their journey, they realized that their child was not with the entourage headed home to Nazareth, and so they left the safety of the group and turned back toward the city in search of him.
They didn’t find him for another three days. Three days is a very long time when you are a parent and your child is missing. As I type this, there are at least two stories in the national news of children missing—under much more obviously sinister circumstances. But any parent or caregiver who has even lost sight of a child for a few minutes—in a crowded department store, say, during the pre-Christmas rush, or in a throng of people at a baseball game—anyone who has ever experienced that panic has a tiny window into the experience of these parents who lost track of their child for three full days.
Three days. Jonah was in the belly of the great fish three days. The Old Testament figure of Joseph, when he was ruler over all Egypt, threw his brothers in jail for three days. Jesus was in the tomb for three days. Three days seem to describe a time of suspense, danger, literal or symbolic death. I can imagine that parents would feel a terrible suspense, even a sense of desolation, over any period during which their children were missing. It may be that is exactly what the writer of this story wants to evoke for us… a kind of premonition of the time Jesus would spend in the tomb, except here it is his parents who suffer in the darkness.
Of course, eventually they find do him, and, oh, what an unsatisfying encounter it turns out to be! He is sitting with the teachers in the Temple, listening to them, asking them questions, answering questions, and impressing the daylights out of everyone with his answers.
Well, he impresses almost everyone. Mom and dad are singularly unimpressed. Mom cuts right to the heart of the matter: “Child, why have you treated us like this?” Now, this is not an unexpected tack for a mother to take under these circumstances. The child has been missing, it is now apparent that he was not waylaid by scoundrels or injured or taken ill, but is exactly where he intends to be. And anger wells up in the parent who even a moment ago was frantic with worry. When I was 11 years old I disappeared for a few hours during a Christmas vacation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I had gone to the beach. When I returned, I received the one and only slap my father ever gave me. I know now that it was entirely a product of his terror that I had somehow been abducted or drowned.
What Mary fails to realize at this point is that Jesus has not, in fact, done anything “to” her and her husband. He certainly has done something that affected her, and one hopes that, at some point on the long, tense walk home to Nazareth he might have sidled up to her, and laid his head on her shoulder, and said, “Gee, Mom, I’m so sorry I worried you!” But this is a classic moment of misunderstanding for those of us who have children: that moment at which they are on the verge of adulthood, and beginning to make choices that are surprising to us, even alarming—not because they are bad choices. But because we still see them in that golden glow that we equate with their being children. It is the moment when, in fact, they are not children any more, and we have to scramble to catch up with that fact. This is not the manger scene. This is not the nursery. Someone is growing up, and, for whatever reason, we just didn’t see it coming. Jesus didn’t do anything “to” his parents. He did something for himself—something that was a crucial part of his own development, his own self-understanding, maybe a tad self-involved and inconsiderate. But very, very important. And for mom and dad… it was hard.
Jesus doesn’t help matters with his smart-aleck answer. “Didn’t you know I must be in my Father’s house? God, Mom and Dad, don’t you get it?” And despite all they know about Jesus, somehow this does not compute to them. Despite Mary having been told about 13 years earlier that her child was somehow from God, she does not get it. Despite this couple having reared Jesus to be a devout and observant Jew, they do not get it. Despite our raising our children to be independent, it still stuns us, when they actually become independent. We do not get it.
I think this story has something important to say about all sorts of change. Whether in a family, or in a group of friends, or in a church, or in a work environment, or just about anywhere else you can think of, change can be wrenching. It can shake us up when people step out of their accustomed roles. It can be painful when people’s behavior seems different than we have come to expect. It can be devastating when we begin to suspect… we are not necessarily needed any more, or needed in the same way. Change can be hard.
And this might be a good moment, in the life of any family, or group of friends, or gathering of co-workers, or members of a church, to take a deep breath and turn to the words of Paul.
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
Patience. Someone has said, Never pray to God for patience; you will quickly have more opportunities than you really want to develop it. But it is an excellent quality to nurture, a necessary quality to help us to live life around other people, no matter what their relationship with us.
13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other...
I am imaging that tense walk back to Nazareth. I am imagining the beginnings of a conversation about what’s next for Jesus. How might he want to continue his studies when he returns home? I am imagining Jesus offering to do the dishes every night for a few weeks.
… just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
All in all, I think Joseph and Mary must have been pretty good parents. Amazing parents, in fact. Jesus, for any growing pains he may have had around about the age of 12, grew into a man who embodied forgiveness and love, and taught it fervently. “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor,” the story ends. But we knew that. It was that blossoming wisdom that led him to follow his path, to see where it might lead him.
14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
I guess I think of the words of this passage as consummate Christmas wisdom, a kind of grand “therefore.” God has loved us so much, has given us this most precious gift of the divine presence in our midst… therefore. Therefore, let’s swaddle ourselves with compassion and kindness… even when those we love slip the bonds of who we thought they were and blossom in new directions. Therefore, let’s bear with one another, even when the specter of change threatens to throw our lives into imbalance and confusion. Therefore, let us forgive one another, even and especially when that forgiveness is hard. Therefore, let us swaddle ourselves with love, and do everything in our power to let it mirror the love we have been shown. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Image: Jesus at the Temple by Brian Jekel