Last week during children’s story, Pam told the story of Jane Addams – the pioneer in American settlement reform, in promoting children’s health and wellbeing, an advocate for women’s rights and the wonderful disruptor for peace.
But what really struck me during Pam’s story was how it was one experience which happened when she was just seven or eight years old which completely altered the trajectory of Jane Addams’ life. If you missed last week, one day, she went with her father to visit one of the mills which he owned. This mill was adjacent to the poorest section of town. As their horse and carriage turned into the street, Jane saw rows of run down houses crowded beside the other. She saw children dressed in ragged, dirty clothing playing in the streets. Never before had Jane seen such a place. Her family lived in the country. She always had had clean clothes to wear and plenty of open space to play.
It was that experience, those brief moments, which set Jane’s heart on fire; it altered how she viewed the world around her. That day gave her a purpose and a mission. It inspired her to change her city and focus on ways in which she could improve the lives of others.
This moment of inspiration, of awakening, seems to be a reoccurring theme in the lives of many of the great disruptors for peace and justice. Often, it is one or two events from their youth or early adulthood which inspired them to see the world differently. Unexpected experiences which haunted their lives and turned their world upside down. Something disrupted the trajectories of their lives and completely changed everything. Dorothy Day’s life was completely changed when she was eight and her city San Francisco was rocked by an earthquake which left half the city in ruins. Mother Theresa was just eleven years old when she first was introduced to the stories of the lives of missionaries and their service in Bengal. Those stories convinced her that she should commit herself to religious life.
I can’t help but wonder if Luke’s Gospel tells us about a similar experience in Jesus’ life – an event which completely altered his perception of his identity. An event which changed his life forever. This Scripture is the only record of Jesus’ childhood anywhere in Scripture. This is the only window we have into the early years of Jesus’ life. Of all the good stories I’m sure Luke could have told, you have to ask why focus on this one?
Have you ever wondered what Jesus was like as a young boy? How he grew and developed into the person that we read about throughout the Gospels? How he learned of his mission and calling in this world?
When did Jesus begin to recognize that he was strangely different from the other boys and girls in Nazareth? That God had a special mission for his life – to bring God’s kingdom to earth? That he was more than just a normal boy, that he was also God incarnate? Did Mary and Joseph share with him the wonderful news of his miraculous birth at a young age? Or did they shelter Jesus from the pressure which comes with such a story?
We do know that up until this point in Jesus’ life, Jesus has been on the receiving end of other people’s initiatives. He has been born and fed, greeted and blessed, clothed and washed. Without any conscious act of his own will, he has grown a hundred thousand million brain cells. And he has been gradually developing the skill to handle the extraordinary human equipment which he inherits along with every other member of the human race.
And now here Jesus is, at the age of 12, quickly approaching the stage when he would undergo his bar mitzvah and become a son of the commandment. Here he is on the cusp of making a major transition in his life. Almost to the age when he would be regarded as a responsible person, one accountable for his own actions. Here he is on the verge of being a teenager, about to start learning the family trade and beginning that process of claiming independence from his parents. It is at this age, when one first made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover. Our text, most likely details Jesus’ first trip to the big city.
You can imagine, Jesus’ excitement on his journey to Jerusalem. It must have been something similar to my first trip to Disney World when I was nine. I barely slept the entire week leading up to that trip. When I finally arrived, I was in awe. It is the myth, the stories which made it seem so magical.
We don’t know when exactly Jesus and his family moved to Nazareth. But given that Herod, the Great, died when Jesus was most likely just two or three, you have to believe that Jesus remembered very little from his time in Egypt. And Nazareth was a small town with no more than 500 residents. A backwater village very different than the big city. I’m sure Joseph told Jesus many times about how his own great, great, great, great grandfather David had captured Jerusalem and transformed it into God’s home. So you can imagine the excitement Jesus must have had when he finally was able to see this Great City with his own eyes.
I picture Mary and Joseph taking Jesus around to see the sites – King Hezekiah’s tunnels, the city walls, the pool of Siloam, the location where his grandfather’s palace used to be, and of course, the Great Temple. Jesus’ heart must have leapt when he saw the Temple for the very first time. And as he witnessed the ritual of the Passover first hand, I imagine the young Jesus, like Samuel centuries before, being powerfully moved by this holy place in which YHWH dwelt. As he witnessed that ritual, something just clicked in his brain. The light bulb went off. Here at the temple, participating in the Passover, he sensed something awaken in his spirit. He felt a warmth reminding him of his other, eternal home.
I’m guessing that is why Jesus didn’t make the trek home to Nazareth with his family. Something inside him was beckoning him to explore whatever it was that he was sensing in his soul. Something was calling out to Jesus and he had to go to the Temple to figure out what it was. Luke includes this story because this is the moment when Jesus was awakened to a new part of himself. When he received confirmation that God had a special mission for his life – to bring heaven to earth.
It’s not surprising that it happened at this moment. When Jesus was in that liminal space, that fuzzy time between childhood and whatever is next. Psychologists have taught us that this is a crucial moment of exploration in the lives of youth. There is that wonderful time of sheltered safety within the confines of parental love and home, and then the child, no longer quite a child, ventures out, and their sense of self starts to expand beyond just their own family. They start searching for answers and their own identity beyond the household, and they enter those formative years we have called adolescence. They come of age.
Mary and Joseph had skipped out on their college intro to psychology course and assumed that Jesus would be with them like he always had been. But he isn’t. He’s not with them, he’s not with relatives or friends, and they head back, on foot of course, to Jerusalem, no doubt having plenty of time to worry themselves sick along the way, which Mary will be quick to remind Jesus when they do find him.
It is clear that this is a transformational time in the life of Jesus because upon reaching Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph look for Jesus in all the wrong places. They failed to realize that the liturgy of the Passover had stirred something new in Jesus’ soul, so they searched for Jesus at all the places where Jesus would have been, before his life altering experience. I’m sure they went to look for Jesus at all the typical places one would expect to find a twelve year old boy. At the movie theatres, the mall, the amusement park, the local toy store. Wherever a typical twelve year old boy from a small town would long to frequent.
Where they find him is in the Temple, the house of God. And what he has been doing, Luke tells us, is “sitting among the teachers, listening to them, and asking questions.” Here he experienced people who longed for God’s reign to be made manifest on earth. People who devoted their lives to God and God’s law. People who believed that a reformation of Jewish life was necessary for the liberation of Israel. People who helped him make sense of his identity. Who he was and what he was being called to give his life to. People who helped him process and more fully awaken to the deeper mysteries of his life.
The first thing Mary does when she sees her son is try to make Jesus feel guilty for all the anxiety he has caused: “My son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been terribly worried trying to find you.” But Jesus is quite unable to appreciate their feelings. He refuses to feel guilty. Even at this young age, we see that Jesus was a disruptor. One who refused to be bound by his society’s standard rules.
Luke tells us the story as a way of letting us hear the first recorded words of Jesus. And characteristically, Jesus’ first utterance is a question. He responds to Mary’s question with a question of his own. And it is a question which is ambiguous, provocatively ambiguous. A question which helps us see what Jesus has been processing those three days at the temple, since his great awakening. Your Bibles probably have Jesus’ question being something like the following: “Why did you have to look for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house.” But Luke’s account is not as definite as that and it is not easy to put these words of Jesus into English. Literally, it reads: “Did you not know that in the things of my father it is necessary for me to be?” Probably the closest translation we can get is “Did you not realize that I must be about my father’s interests?” This is the version given in the margins of the New Revised Standard Version and some other modern versions.
We are used to seeing the word ‘father’ in Mary’s words in the previous sentence, spelled with a small f, and immediately afterwards, the same word in the mouth of Jesus spelled out with a capital F. So, Mary is talking about Joseph and Jesus is talking about God. But this is an interpretation. In Luke’s original there was no such distinction between capital letters and small letters.
So to Mary’s question, at least one way of reading Jesus’ answer is that he has been attending to what his father, Joseph, has been wishing him to attend to. He has been in the Temple, the Temple to which Joseph has carefully brought him; and he has been doing in the Temple the things which Joseph has brought him to the Temple to do. He has been fulfilling his earthly father’s interests. Of course, the other way of reading Jesus’ response is that he is talking about an alternative father – God. Jesus had been busy at the Temple trying to figure out his identity and what exactly God is calling him to do with his life. But the point is that Jesus’ response is meant to be understood as deliberately ambiguous. And this ambiguity highlights the tension which Jesus is feeling and beginning to reconcile inside himself. It shows us that Jesus is starting to wrestle with something extremely difficult – his double parenting. He is being awakened to the fact that he is both human and divine. That both Joseph and God are his fathers. And that he has been created for an extremely unique mission in this world.
We are told that Mary and Joseph didn’t know what to make of Jesus’ answer. Joseph had to be left asking himself: “Who is he talking about when he talks about his father? Me or someone else? All right, I did bring him here. I did want him to get a feel of the Temple. But I never intended for this. For him to treat it as his new home. For him to stay here without us. Does he even belong to us anymore?” I have a feeling, that those of you who are parents, know exactly how Joseph must have felt. (long pause)
The good news of Christmas is that Jesus is Immanuel – God with us. That God took on our flesh, that God became one of us. That God has chosen humanity. That God has chosen us. Chosen life with you. And that by being drawn into human life, God experiences almost everything we can.
This is the hardest truth we ever have to believe. It was just as hard for the earliest Christians as well. A couple of hundred years after Jesus’ life, a group of people wrote The Infancy Gospel of Thomas which tells different fanciful stories about the childhood of Jesus. In it, we read of the young Jesus doing harmless things like making birds out of clay and then making them come to life, and useful things like stretching a piece of wood to make it the right size for his father Joseph who is making a bed for him. It also includes stories of Jesus being a bit of a childhood bully as he curses a boy who then turns into a corpse, and he makes some people go blind – although he does end up reversing those things. In these stories, Jesus’ childhood was radically different from ours. Jesus didn’t have to grow in wisdom. He didn’t have to learn his identity. He didn’t have to awaken to the calling given to him by God. In these stories, Jesus always knew that he was God. He just had to come to terms with the power of such identity.
But that isn’t how Luke tells the story. Luke wants us to know that Jesus was an adolescent like we all were, with all the misunderstandings and puzzlements of that difficult time of life. For him, as for most of us, it was not a steady smooth experience. It involved changes in direction and new styles of behavior. It meant Jesus wrestling with his identity. Like many since, Jesus had to be awakened to the unique mission placed upon his life. Jesus had to undergo an experience which altered the trajectory of his life. Jesus had to grow into his identity like each and every one of us has to. He had to hammer out his wisdom and his peaceful relationship with God and with other people.
Have you ever struggled to come to terms with who you are? Do you ever feel confused about what God is calling you to do? Have you ever felt like you don’t completely belong? That you aren’t quite sure of your place in this world? Well the good news is that Jesus did too. He had to wrestle with questions about identity and belonging, like each and every one of us have to do. He had to come to terms with the unique calling placed upon his life. We must do the same. And he had to grow—as we all hope to grow—in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and other people.