Summary: Even for Mary, Joseph and Jesus there were some messy family days. But that may be a necessary, healthy part of letting our teens grow up.
Have you ever found yourself in the situation where someone really impresses you, and you ask yourself, “I wonder what that person was like as a child?” You might be impressed with them for good things, or bad things. But you wonder about their childhood.
For centuries Jesus has impressed pretty much anyone who hears about him. And so many people have wondered what he was like as a child. The Bible tells us very little. Today we get the best glimpse. There were people who wrote other stories about Jesus as a child, but they are so different from who he was as an adult that the early church rejected them.
For example, the most famous one, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, has Jesus as a young boy striking the other kids in town dead if they bump into him or interrupt his game. In this story the people of Nazareth finally threaten to run the family out of town. So Joseph grabs Jesus by the ear and makes him put everybody back to normal and promise to behave himself. It isn’t hard to see that this just doesn’t fit with the Jesus in the Bible.
Today we have a story that feels much more real to me.
Jesus is now twelve years old. It is time for the Passover Feast. That means it’s about our Easter time. All the adult men are required to go to Jerusalem for the feast. At the age of twelve, Jesus won’t be required to go until next year, but Joseph brings him and Mary comes, too.
It’s a three-day walk from Nazareth in Galilee to Jerusalem. I think we can all picture the wonder in a small town boy’s face as they come over the top of the Mount of Olives and see the great wall of the city of Jerusalem and the spectacular temple. He would feel the excitement of the crowds of people from all over the world. He may have met aunts and uncles or cousins that he had never seen before. He would have known the rabbi in the tiny synagogue back home in Nazareth, but here, in the temple courts there were the top rabbis of the people of Israel, sitting around the edges of the temple courts with their disciples at their feet, questions flying back and forth. The singing in the temple may have been the most beautiful he had ever heard.
He may have been deeply moved by the Passover meal, as the family went through the story of how God had delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, and together they ate the traditional foods, each one deep with symbolic meaning.
The time came to go home. Mary and Joseph met up with a whole crowd who had traveled down together from Nazareth. It was dangerous to travel alone. The first leg of their journey was down the Jericho road, where the Good Samaritan was mugged in the parable that Jesus was to tell as a man.
When these caravans of pilgrims would travel across country, the men tended to travel together in one group and the women in another, with the kids sometimes with one, sometimes with another. They headed out and walked a full day to the first campsite. Mary and Joseph met at the prearranged spot. Maybe each thought that Jesus had been with the other or with relatives. Mary started the fire to cook supper. Joseph asked around among family and friends, looking for anyone who had seen him that day. But none of them had seen him all day. Now it was getting dark. Joseph went up and down the rows of campfires, trying to get a good look at every face, asking if they had seen his son, getting more and more worried, getting more and more angry, getting more and more embarrassed that his son had so misbehaved. I can just hear one of the neighbors saying, “Mary and Joseph always thought their kid was so perfect, but now its there turn to worry.” It was obvious that they were used to giving him a lot of trust and freedom, but this was too much.
At some point they gave up the search and went to bed, but I can’t imagine they slept very much. At first light, they were up and retraced their steps back to Jerusalem, now sometimes going against the flow of the pilgrims on the road, now feeling very vulnerable when the road was empty, stopping at each village and inn to ask if anyone has seen their child.
When they finally got to Jerusalem towards the end of the day they checked out the place they had stayed and the places they had eaten, but there was no sign of Jesus. After another sleepless night they finally decided to search in the temple. They went down the rows of rabbis teaching their disciples, and then, all of a sudden, there was their son.