It’s hard to believe that just last Sunday we were leaving the manger where the infant Jesus lay, and now we’re reading a story about Jesus as a twelve-year-old boy. We blew right by all those years in between. No stories about playing with the other children in his Nazareth neighborhood. None about skinned knees and lost baby teeth. Nothing about how his younger siblings were both playmates and pests, adorable and adoring. Nothing about spending time with Joseph as he worked, or doing chores for Mary.
The Gospels don’t tell us what Jesus knew about who he was as a child. They don’t say what, if anything, Joseph and Mary told him about his miraculous birth and the destiny revealed by the angel. There’s no record of his early training in Judaism and the Scriptures, although we can make some guesses about that. Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary followed all the prescribed rituals as faithful Jews. They had Jesus circumcised when he was eight days old. They took him to the temple to present him along with their sacrifices, and the made their an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. As an adult, Jesus clearly knew his Scriptures, and I think it’s reasonable to give Mary and Joseph the credit for that.
We have only two other accounts of events from Jesus’ childhood. One is Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth and visit to the temple. The other is Matthew’s story of the magi’s visit and the holy family seeking asylum across the border when they feared for their safety in their own country. But, as the old radio host Paul Harvey understood so well, we human beings love to know “the rest of the story.” So, many stories have been collected and told about Jesus as a child, and about Mary and Joseph, too. They date from about 100 years after Jesus’ death up until about the year 1300, and they include some pretty wild tales and legends. If you’re curious, just do a search for “infancy gospels” on the internet, and you’ll find links to places where you can read them.
Luke’s story is the only story about Jesus between his early childhood and his public ministry as an adult that was chosen as Scripture. This leads us to some questions. “What does this story tell us about Jesus, and how can it help us in our discipleship?”
Luke tells us in the beginning of his gospel that his goal is to provide an “orderly account” of what eye-witnesses passed on about Jesus’ life, so that his readers would know the truth of these accounts. Luke was likely a Gentile, writing for Gentile Christians, in the midst of a culture defined by Greek and Roman traditions. Luke’s choice of a story about Jesus as a twelve-year-old would have made sense to his readers. Greek and Roman biographies typically included stories about heroes as twelve-year-olds. It was believed that, at that age, people began to show the qualities that would later make them significant in some way.
Luke may have chosen a story about Jesus as a twelve-year-old because his readers would have expected it. But he also had to choose a particular story that would communicate something about Jesus—something that would, as he said, help his readers to know the truth of Jesus.
When Peyton was about five, we were on vacation and waiting for a plane when she became distraught. When we asked what was wrong, she announced that she didn’t know where Jack was. Marc and I weren’t especially worried about Jack, since Jack was Peyton’s imaginary friend. But, Peyton tearfully insisted that we couldn’t get on the plane until Jack was found. We finally convinced her that Jack was just delayed and would be taking a different flight. She was somewhat appeased by that, but her panic and fear had been very real.
Imagine Mary and Joseph’s panic and fear when they realized that Jesus wasn’t with them on the return trip to Nazareth from their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It would be easy to disapprove of them. What kind of parents lose their son? Well, lots of parents do—in the grocery store, at a park. Why else would the “Home Alone” movies be so popular? Maybe it’s happened to you.
Mary and Joseph and their brood had been travelling with a group of family and friends. At twelve, Jesus could have been with either the women or the men. He was also old enough to know where he was supposed to be and to take some responsibility for himself. So, it’s not so surprising that his absence wasn’t noticed until the group settled down for the night. That’s when the panic set in. After having already traveled for a day toward home, Joseph and Mary together turned around to go back to Jerusalem to find their AWOL son.
Luke tells us they found him after three days. Even though the number three calls up resurrection themes for us, Luke probably didn’t intend it that way. He’s just reporting. It could have been Mary and Joseph’s travel time plus a day of looking, or three days of looking after they got back to Jerusalem. In any event, they found him in the temple, talking and with the teachers there.
Some people think that Jesus was teaching the teachers—maybe even showing them up, as he would later on. But, nothing in the story indicates that. He was sitting, as teachers did, but students sat, too. He was “among” them, but servants worked “among” others as well. He and the teachers were engaged in a back-and-forth discussion, but this was a time-honored tradition in Judaism—discussing and interpreting Scripture. When he turned thirteen, Jesus would have assumed the covenantal responsibilities of an adult man, and at twelve he would have begun a period of intense preparation for that. But, clearly, Jesus seemed precocious to the teachers. He amazed them with his understanding and answers to their questions.
Mary and Joseph finally locate their boy in the temple. Luke tells us they were astonished. Their astonishment at learning their son has been calmly sitting with the teachers while they were turning Jerusalem upside down looking for him is amazement on steroids—amped up by their panic and shock. Mary scolds her son: “Child, why have you treated us like this?” Jesus’ answer is the key to the entire passage: “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph didn’t understand what Jesus said to them. You’ve got to wonder why they didn’t. After all, they had each heard from the angel Gabriel who Mary’s baby would be and what he would do. Maybe the confusion came because, in Luke’s Greek words, Jesus doesn’t specify exactly what of his Father’s he’s about. The sentence literally says, “Didn’t you know that I must be about my Father’s (fill in the blank)?” His Father’s house, the temple, fits the context. So could the King James Version, where it says, “I must be about my Father’s business.” His answer, at least as Luke tells it, is not completely clear.
But, it doesn’t really need to be, because the main point is not where Jesus is or exactly what he’s doing. The main point is that he describes God as his Father. These are Jesus’ first words in Luke’s gospel, and when he speaks, his words make it clear that he understands who he is. He is God’s son. And what he is doing not just what he chooses to do, but what he must do. He’s not just making the arbitrary, immature choices of a child. He is beginning to do what God has ordained for him to do.
It would be easy to imagine Jesus deciding then and there that he had outgrown his earthly parents. But that wasn’t the case. Luke tells us that he returned with them to Nazareth. And he was obedient to them—submissive even. And, as he grew older, he increased in wisdom, in God’s grace, and in the estimation of other people.
So, to get back to our original questions, “What does this story tell us about Jesus, and how can it help us in our discipleship?”
For one thing, it tells us that Jesus had begun to understand that the thing that most defined him was his relationship to God, his Father, and the work his Father had marked out for him. Whether it was being in the physical place where Jews understood God to be present, or being about the business of saving the world, Jesus knew that his Father’s work was his work, and his place was in his Father’s place. And if God was his Father, then he was God’s Son.
But, the story also reveals to us that Jesus was fully human—a fully human boy who had things to learn. He still had room to grow. We could see his decision to stay behind in Jerusalem as a mark of his divinity. But, it could just as easily have sprung from a young boy’s desire to satisfy his curiosity about the questions he was beginning to have about himself—about who he was and what he was going to be when he grew up. He may have wanted to exercise some independence, as so many pre-teens do. Jesus’ outing in Jerusalem may have begun to reveal who he was—both to himself and to others, but he was still a twelve-year-old boy with all the normal feelings that come with that.
Sometimes we need a reminder of Jesus’ humanity. We hear the stories of his miraculous birth and acts of healing and calming the stormy seas. We ponder the miracle of the resurrection. We marvel at the majesty of the ascension. We focus on Jesus’ divinity and forget about his human-ness. And yet it was in his very humanity that God was revealed to us in ways that we can see and touch and hear. We need the reminder that the Word became flesh and lived among us—Immanuel, God with us.
Jesus needed the care of his earthly parents. He returned with them and was obedient to them. He accepted their guidance. He did his chores, he went to synagogue, and he prepared to take on the responsibilities of a Jewish man, like all the other boys his age. Under his parents’ care, he learned and he grew.
As he grew in years, he became wiser. He was growing in God’s grace. He was becoming someone other people looked up to, not because he conformed to the world’s values but because he was learning to live according to his Father’s values. He was what my husband, the coach, used to say of his youngest, most inexperienced softball players. They were in the “building years”—years of growing and maturing. That was a process for Jesus, just as it is for any young person. It’s also a process for Christians of any age.
Jesus tells us that we must become like children to receive the kingdom of God. Over and over again, Paul and other letter-writers address believers as children—children of light, children of the promise, beloved children of God. Children learn and grow. They mature. They understand the world and their place in it more and more with each passing day, just as Jesus did as a child. They grow closer to God and, hopefully, deepen their relationship with God, just as Jesus did as he grew from a twelve-year-old boy into the man we know and strive to be like.
That means that we, too, must continue to learn and grow and mature in our faith. In the letter to the Ephesians, we read that God has given the church apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Why? “To equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”
None of us has attained that kind of Christ-like maturity; it takes a life-time to reach. Sadly, some people never try to reach it. They hold on to the understandings they learned in kindergarten Sunday School and never try to grow beyond them. But, adult life strips those early learnings of their power to explain and sustain. We need to follow the example of Jesus, growing in wisdom as our years increase—whether we’re in our preteens or middle years or old age.
“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians. As we grow up as Jesus did, from childhood into adulthood, we do put away childishness. But Jesus asks for us to remain childlike—growing into the fullness of all that God has created us to be, maturing in our relationship with God.
If we are fortunate enough to learn about Jesus when we are small, we grow up physically with him by our side. But, no matter how old we are when we meet him, we can grow up spiritually with him. He is always with us. By the power of his Spirit, he continues to teach us all that we need to know. If we ever feel like we’ve lost him, it’s not because he’s wandered away. It’s because we have. But, the good news is that he is always waiting for those who are looking for him.
Today is Epiphany Sunday. Epiphany means “a manifestation, “or a “showing forth.” We say we have an epiphany when something suddenly becomes clear to us. On Epiphany Sunday, we usually read the story of the wise men, because that is the story of when Jesus was revealed as the Messiah, not just for the Jews, but for all people.
In Luke, we have a different kind of epiphany. In it, the humanity of Jesus is revealed in a twelve-year-old boy—a boy who is still growing, still learning. Jesus’ identity as the Son of God is revealed—or begins to be—to the teachers in the temple, and maybe also to Jesus himself. And, we also have a story that reveals who we are—people who are still learning, still maturing, still being perfected in love. Thanks be to God and to God’s Son, the Word made flesh, God with us as we grow in our faith. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young