Sometimes I wonder what Jesus was like when he was a kid. What toy did he like to play with? Was he just like any kid when he was three demanding things for himself and getting vocal when Mary and Joseph didn’t oblige? Did Mary hang up his drawings on the fridge? Did he struggle at spelling or math? Did he love being outdoors and playing with his friends? Were there things that Mary made for dinner that he didn’t like to eat?
A sermon based on Luke 2:41-52.
We don’t know, of course. Between Matthew and Luke—the two Gospel writers who include any details about Jesus’ early life—the episode we heard today is the only one beyond his early years. It’s telling on many fronts.
First, Mary and Joseph took their faith seriously. You’d expect this, of course, Mary being visited by an angel and told she’s favored by God and all, but I don’t think it’s a given. There are many points throughout a life where incidents happen, questions arise, tragedies hit, and people begin to question their need for God, or if God is even there for them. Add to this the ones who’ve been hurt by religious types or made to feel like an outsider from a worshipping community for whatever reason. But Mary and Joseph held their Jewish faith with such importance to be making the 100 mile trek from Nazareth down to the temple at Jerusalem for the Passover festival each year as commanded by the Torah. They traveled with friends and relatives there from Nazareth, we’re told, making the journey much more enjoyable. The kids could all play together while the parents talked amongst themselves as they walked.
Which explains exactly how this scene unfolds. Mary and Joseph and now middle school aged Jesus take part in the yearly remembrance of the Exodus and the release of the Israelites from the bondage of oppression and slavery. After a week of festive dinners and worshipping in the Temple, they pack up their camping equipment early one morning to head home. After helping roll up the sleeping bags and getting his few belongings into his pack, Jesus asks if he can go explore and meet up with some friends. “Just stay with the group,” I’m sure Mary said, unable to believe Jesus was getting so big now, still imagining him as that little kindergartner, and having a hard time adjusting to his desire for a bit more freedom. The group from Nazareth is large enough, and the work Joseph and Mary need to do to finish packing is distracting enough, that they don’t panic when they don’t catch sight of Jesus as they leave the area. He’s a good kid, surely he’s with his friends in the crowd.
As they walk, the group spreads out and Mary and Joseph catch sight of that posse of tween-age boys moving around together, not able to pick out Jesus of course—those boys all look the same when they run around like that—but glad that he’s finding a bit of protected independence. It’s not until they reach that first campground on the way home, the shadows of the day lengthening and a simple meal nearly ready, that they begin to get a bit worried. Joseph walks around to the other sites to see if somehow Jesus is still with a friend unaware that it’s time for dinner. Nothing doing. After checking with all their friends and relatives, asking them if they’ve seen Jesus, they realize that they hadn’t laid eyes on the boy since that morning when they packed up back in Jerusalem. They quickly gather all their things—trying not to let their worst fears creep in—and hightail it back to the city.
Personally, I have to wonder if Luke was a parent when he wrote this bit. He says, “When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days…” I know it’s not Mary or Joseph’s story, but I also know that searching for your lost kid for three days would have been unimaginably horrific. “They returned to search for him.” Period. “After three days…” I mean, come on Luke. I know good writers don’t want to use too many adverbs in their writing, but couldn’t you have tossed one in for the parents? Maybe you could have said they “frantically searched” perhaps, just to throw us a bone. Regardless, the tiny space on the page between the end of one sentence and the beginning of another likely included three of the longest days in Mary and Joseph’s lives.
Who knows how they finally hit upon looking in the Temple for Jesus. After exhausting the pizza joints, the Qwik-E-Marts, the swimming holes, and even the local bookshops, they finally came to the Temple. It’s nearly empty. And that’s where they find him, sitting in a circle with the elders, fresh off the long week of services. They’re engaged in deep theological conversations. The ones in that circle don’t bother to ask why Jesus wasn’t home with his parents—assuming he was just a local boy—they’re just intrigued and amazed at his profound understanding of the ways of God.
I’m sure Mary wanted to both hug that boy and smack him upside the head. Luke puts these words in her mouth, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” We know she really said, “Boy, what has gotten into you? Don’t you know that we’ve been looking all over for you for days? You had us worried sick,” at which point the tears start flowing hard, and she chokes out, “Don’t you ever do that to us again!”
The religious types are both a bit sheepish and bit stunned, seeing Jesus as a prodigy rather than just a 12 year old with worried parents. Jesus looks at his parents and says, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” and it’s hard to hear the tone when you read it. Since it’s Jesus, I’m 90 percent sure that he didn’t roll his eyes while he said those words, making them drip with adolescent sarcasm. Luke hints to Jesus’ more respectful attitude when he tells us that they all went back to Nazareth, and Jesus obeyed his parents. Not that he wasn’t doing that before, I suspect, just that he really minded his ps and qs after that incident and as he came into his own.
What I love about this story—this single story we get of Jesus in his adolescence—is how normal the Holy Family sounds. Mary and Joseph letting Jesus go off out of their sight in the first place, allowing him to explore the bigger world. It’s a time fraught with anxiety for any parent as they realize their little one has grown up right in front of them, and while it may have only been a few years ago for them that they were reading to that little one before bed, it’s been ages for the child and he’s now ready to test the waters. And then I also appreciate the fact that Mary and Joseph lost him. You can parse that out however you like—they didn’t “lose him” of course, the boy followed his own nose back to the Temple—but I can assure you that this gave one more thing for the local gossipers to tut-tut about over Mary and Joe. First she got pregnant before the wedding, then took that baby on a long detour into Egypt for seemingly no good reason, and now back in Nazareth, they can’t control that boy from running off. And I suspect that they heard those murmurings in the marketplace, or anytime they walked by.
In other words, they weren’t perfect. They were just like you and me. How many of us as parents wonder if we’re cut out for the job? How many times have we been faced with a smug tween responding in a way that makes us fight back anger and then perhaps remembering later that we were once doing the same thing to our parents? How long does it take for us to stop taking a deep breath and having a pang of nervousness as we hand over the car keys? If the Holy Family experienced those feelings, well then we shouldn’t expect not to have them ourselves. Because we do expect that I think far more than we let on. We wish the world would just work out for us and not have moments that feel less than great for us and our kids. We don’t want to be the family providing gossip on Facetube or anywhere else. We just want to be normal.
But normal is a lot less perfect and a lot more messy than we envision. If Mary and Joseph don’t get a break from the messy, we might take that as a hint that we won’t either. And knowing that is perhaps a bit more freeing for us. Free to know that God created us to work out our understandings of who we are as individuals. To know that as we—and our kids—explore life and faith there will bumps and bruises along the way. That in the end what’s most important is having each other to support and love through the messiness of life. Jesus is called Emmanuel—God with us—and we can trust that God remains with us no matter what. That, friends, is the greatest gift of Christmas.