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.
And you know how Mary reacted. She was a saint, but even saints have limits. We can’t tell from the text where her volume control knob was set when she said it, but I would guess it might be pretty high. “Child, how could you have treated us like this?” Joseph wasn’t saying anything yet. Watch out, Jesus.
They were stunned at their son’s misbehavior. And, you know, he was stunned right back at them. He didn’t see why they were mad.
Here we have it, 2,000 years ago, parents and teens trying to understand each other. “Mom, Dad, didn’t you understand I need to be in the temple?” No, they didn’t understand that day.
The Bible says that Jesus never, sinned, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here. A lot of times 12-year olds mess up, they don’t really mean to make trouble. They just don’t have the life experience yet. But he should have talked this over with his parents before he headed off to the temple.
It’s a good story, isn’t it? If you have ever been a teenager you can find yourself in it. If you’ve ever been the parent of a teenager you can find yourself in it. That’s what good stories do.
If somebody made a movie out of this story, the reviewers would call it a coming of age story. When children are little they pretty much go along with their parents’ opinions. But there comes a time when they start to recognize that they need to find their own way. And those moments can be hard on families.
Joseph is thinking about the jobs he had promised to do for people as soon as the Passover was done and how he needs that income to keep his family fed. He is thinking what the other men in town were saying about him for losing control of his son.
Mary is thinking about all the laundry that would need to be done when they finally got home and having to restock the refrigerator. And what had she done wrong as a mother that her son would do this to her? If he did this today, what was he going to pull next month? Could she handle this?
Here is Jesus, surprised that he had hurt his parents so much. He didn’t intend to hurt them. But there was something happening in his heart that he just had to pursue. He had to find out more about who he was and what God expected of him. He couldn’t miss the chance to hear more from the top rabbis. He had so many questions. The minds of the parents and the mind of the son saw this event in totally different ways.
This story is in the Bible for us to see something of the inner workings of who Jesus was. He didn’t always know all things. He had to learn and he worked at it with all his heart. And it was this day that he made a major step forward in understanding just how unique he was, the Son of God, in a very special way.
And I like the story because it can help us understand something about teenagers, too.
Mary and Joseph were beautiful parents, the best, as near as I can see. How wise they were to expose their son to all the spiritual stimulation of a visit to Jerusalem.
The angels had laid it out for them that this son of theirs was very special. But for every parent, you get a picture in your mind of who your child is going to be. And then there is always more, always something unexpected, something that just comes, out of the depths of who God created them to be.
In my family, my father is an electrical engineer. Of course, he’s retired now. He was very good at it. My older brother followed in his footsteps and the two of them can talk engineering forever. But that wasn’t me. And my parents really worked to let me be me, to help me be me. Mostly we took our family vacations camping in the Rocky Mountains. But when I found an interest in history in 8th grade, we took our vacation to the east coast to see historical sites instead. They really worked to help me find who am I, but it took a while for me to figure out that I’m not an engineer and that’s OK and to find out who I am. Didn’t we all go through a similar process?
Mary and Joseph were in a hurry to get back to the daily grind. Can’t you feel Jesus’ heart crying out? There is something more to life than carpentry and I have to find it. Some day you’ll have to let me go.
We often sell teenagers short. The teen years can be intensely spiritual years. They are branching out and having so many new experiences and working very hard to understand how all those experiences fit together, what is really important in life, how people can get along together.
The teen years can be profound questioning years. How can we build a better world? Why do people put up with the way things are?
Treasure those questions. It wouldn’t hurt for us adults to wrestle with them more. We need to help our youth get in touch with people who can help them work out the answers. This is one of the places that church youth ministry can be so important.
When things are working as they should, our teens are recognizing that they can’t just float through life living by what their parents believe. They have to find out for themselves what they need to believe. And that takes some exploring and some questioning and some challenging. It may mean that they just give up on some of the outward parts of the faith for a while as they search for the inward. It can be a messy process. But it’s better to work things through in a messy way than never think about them at all and float through life as a mindless conformist.
Mary and Joseph and Jesus, himself, had a rough time that day, thousands of years ago. They really didn’t understand each other. But they worked it out. They went home together. I can picture them talking it all out on the road. “Remember, son, next time you talk with us before you disappear on your own, all right?” “Yes mother.” “But now, tell us about your time with the Rabbis, what did you learn?” So they went home together. Jesus obeyed his parents. And Mary came to treasure it all in her heart. AMEN