Do you remember being twelve years old? I remember those days. I was happy and innocent. As I went to school every day, I went to church every Sunday, not necessary because I wanted to learn about God, but because I had many good friends there. As I grew into the teen-age years and as I learned more about God from the Sunday school, I had many questions about the Scripture and the nature of God and so on. Not all the answers from my Sunday school teachers and even pastors were clear to me, but I was hanging in there in the faith community. Over the years, I have learned that the Word of God is “living and active.” And one of the ways we know it is LIVING is that it changes meaning for us as WE change. It speaks to us in new ways in new circumstances. Today’s gospel lesson is a prime example.
When I was a teenager, my identification in this account was with Jesus – Jesus, the sharp young boy; Jesus, the over-achieving first child of the family; Jesus, the devout student of the faith for whom Temple tasks came as a priority over even family concerns. It all fed right into my normal adolescent rebellion (and I loved it) – Jesus is twelve and tells his parents to let him do his own thing (Yes!). Jesus finds respect and affection outside the family circle: with the elders, with the leaders of the Jewish religion, not just in Nazareth, but in Jerusalem, the Temple itself. I identified there as well.
But now, I am a father and my perspective has changed. Now I read this story, not in identification with Jesus, but rather with Mary and Joseph, the distressed parents who search frantically for their son, who are desperate to know where he is, and who, upon finding him, are more angry than understanding. In other words, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, when I was a child I read this text like a child, and now that I am a father, I read it like a dad.
Just a few days ago, we retold the story of Jesus’ birth. In Luke chapter 2, Luke gives us a brief snapshot of Jesus’ naming at eight days and then a mini-narrative about Jesus’ presentation at the temple when he was four weeks old. But then suddenly the gospel video is put on fast forward, and the “baby” is twelve years old, going to Jerusalem once more with his family. What happened between four weeks and twelve years? We do not know.
There is a lot we do not know about Jesus’ life, because it was not Luke’s intention to write a biography. Luke’s purpose is not to give us a graphic description of Jesus’ childhood, but rather to tell us that, even in childhood, Jesus was the Christ. This story is told not to provide information about human events but to proclaim to the early church that Jesus Christ was Lord, Messiah, the Christ, Immanuel.
I remember how I felt right after arriving home with newborn Jonathan from the hospital. We were surrounded by gifts and flowers. But, there were many instruction booklets, too. For example, how to mix the formulas; how to clean those bottles; how to assemble baby-cart; how to install baby seat in the car, and so on. Jonathan didn’t eat at all for almost a week and when he cried all through the night, I reached a panic point. What is wrong with this little creature? What should we do?
Anyhow, we survived those days. And we thought that it would be better as days go by. But, as most of you who have been through it know, I realized that having the baby is just the beginning. What really counts is the next twenty-some years…, until they graduate from college. And do I hope that’s it! In a similar way, the real question of Christmas is not, “How are we going to celebrate the birth?” but rather, “How are we going to live with Immanuel…God with us?”
Friends, let me ask: Is this concept of God being with us always comforting? Or, sometimes threatening? It could be very threatening, you know. Think about it. There are times when you do not want to see, let’s say, your parents, or when you do not want to talk to your family for whatever reason. Likewise, there are times when you want to avoid God or run away from God. What do you do then, if it’s Immanuel? After the Christmas decorations are put away in few days, we are faced with the real question: what do we do now that we have proclaimed that God is living in our very midst? Now what? Sometimes, it is not easy.
Let’s look at how Mary handles it. Her son is missing. They are a day’s journey from Jerusalem and turn back and search for him. After three days, they find him, sitting among the elders in the Temple with not a care in the world. Mary explodes. She does not understand. She does not understand why he did not go back to Nazareth with the family. She does not understand why he returned to the Temple. She does not understand why he did not at least tell them his plans. She does not understand why he seems so bright, so wise, so full of understanding beyond his years, but at the same time, oblivious to the concerns of his parents. And she says, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”
She is a terrified mom whose twelve-year-old son has been missing for several days. Moreover, Mary is agitated because her son has learned well that one of the commandments is, “Honor your father and your mother,” and she has no explanation for this behavior. And she explodes, in anger, just as you or I might do. “Why have you done this? Why did you do this to me? I am worried about you.” Mary has totally lost it. She is hysterical, and she wants an explanation.
Jesus replies, calmly, coolly, on a completely different level, without even a lame excuse about meaning to tell them or forgetting to let them know. “Why were you searching for me?” he asks. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Wow! I certainly understand how Mary felt. A few weeks ago, Elizabeth and I were running late for a doctor’s appointment. I kept saying, “Let’s! Let’s go!” Elizabeth was not ready. In a few moments, I said again, “Hurry up, we are late.” A few moments later, I shouted, “Elizabeth, I will be in the van, come out right now! Ok?” Then, I was waiting and waiting…. I was getting agitated. I honked a couple of times. I was really upset now. When Elizabeth came finally, I raised my voice. I don’t remember what I said exactly, but I know my stress was expressed. Elizabeth responded calmly and coolly, “Dad, I don’t understand why you are so upset. I was changing my clothes.” That’s it. Only if I heard a lame excuse, it would make me feel a little better. But, she just responded just like 12-year-old Jesus. She never said, “I am sorry.” In a way, she even scolded me. “Dad, why are you so upset? I don’t understand!” Wow.
For Jesus, though, it is a matter of priority. To be more specific, it is a matter of vocation: “…I MUST,” says Jesus, “be in my Father’s house.” “I MUST be about the work my Father has given me to do.” “I MUST,” he says again in chapter four, “preach, the good news of the kingdom of God…for I was sent for this purpose.”
Jesus was born to a task, according to Christmas narratives, he was even conceived to a task, and here he acknowledges it himself for the first time. But, according to Luke, Mary and Joseph, “did not understand what he said to them.” They have tried hard. But the Son of God is in their midst, living in their very home, and they just do not understand.
And that is probably why Luke put this story at the end of his introductory two chapters. Luke writes not to share the details of a family crisis or to show us how Mary and Joseph handle the conflicts of life. Rather, he writes to share the notion that understanding Jesus is not easy. Not for Mary and Joseph. Not for anyone. Several times during his ministry, Jesus predicts that he will be rejected, betrayed, and given over to die. Over and over he tries to get his disciples to understand. But they never understand.
And neither do we. We prefer the wonders of Christmas, and would avoid the hard questions of these Sundays after, the questions with which we would rather not deal. What do we do now that we have proclaimed, “Unto us a child is born…a son is given”… God is living with us?
What do we do as we find out through the Gospels that he likes to eat and drink with prostitutes, thieves, lepers, outcasts, those on the margins of society instead of with good religious folk? What do we do with a Messiah who is so intensely political when we would prefer to keep politics and religion separate? What do we do with all Jesus’ talk about the problems inherent with money and possessions?
Mary and Joseph do not understand everything, but, to their credit, they hang in. They ponder. They do not comprehend what their son is doing, but they do not give up. They do not know what to expect, but they do know that whatever happens, it will be the Father’s business that their son is about. And, we are told, Jesus goes home to Nazareth. He hangs in too. It is the first of many gracious acts of hanging in with people who do not have a clue, who simply do not understand. The rest of the Gospel of Luke is full of these stories. The history of the church is full of these stories. And when we sit around and talk honestly about it, we find that we are full of these stories too.
We do not always understand everything about God, if God is good and almighty, why bad things happen to good people? We do not always understand everything about Jesus, about his Lordship, but we keep on hanging in, as best as we can, because we WILL get better at it. He is HERE, hanging in with us. So, my brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s keep hanging in. And let’s “Go, tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is HERE with us.” Amen!
Painting by Adolph Menzel