Today, we’re skipping ahead in the story of Jesus quite a ways. It seems like ages ago that we celebrated Jesus’ birth and wondered together how a very special story, featuring a very special God, might take place within and among very ordinary people and places—but in many ways, we’re continuing that theme with our Scripture lesson for this morning.
As we listen, I want us to think about the ways this adventure with 12-year-old Jesus is entirely ordinary—and the ways it’s not.
Scripture: Luke 2:41-52
Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.
This is a story, primarily, about how very ordinarily human Jesus is—and is not. He has a mother and father who care for him; they are part of a larger community that honors religious tradition; he honors these relationships; he matures and grows; he listens, learns, and teaches; time passes from one stage to the next.
In many ways, this would’ve been a very ordinary Passover trip from Nazareth to Jerusalem. They made the trip every year, according to Luke, and they traveled with family and friends who knew one another and trusted one another. So when they left together, as they always did, it was assumed that Jesus was with Zechariah and Elizabeth, perhaps, or running around with one of his many brothers or cousins or friends. But this time, he wasn’t.
Everyone who’s ever been charged with the care of a child knows that surge of feelings when you lose track of your child—in an amusement park crowd, or at a school event, or even here at church.
Parents in the room: how do you think Mary and Joseph felt when they realized Jesus wasn’t with them?
Scared. Sick. Guilty. Energized.
And how did they feel when they found him?
Relieved. Angry. Joyful. Excited.
In the middle of this very ordinary event—a teenager gets distracted and wanders away to do his own thing—something extraordinary happens: we see Jesus embrace his own identity as the Son of God for the first time. This is the first time we see him call God ‘Father,’ though it certainly isn’t the last.
But we also learn a couple of really important things about Jesus in this moment, and we catch glimpses of the sort of rule-following, rule-bending, doing-his-own-thing sort of minister he will become.
One of the striking notes in this passage is a reminder that the Temple is a central part of Jesus’ life. As a child and as an adult, and even during his ministry, he attends synagogue on the Sabbath and celebrates the Passover and does almost everything that is proper for an adult Jewish man to do. (Believe me, you’ll recognize the places where he bends or breaks the rules.) But whereas most young adults in our society are busy growing out of and away from religious life, Jesus doesn’t grow in spite of his family’s religious roots; he grows from them and into them.
At the same time, somewhat paradoxically, we begin to see Jesus pushing away a bit from his parents and family. His faith and his religious life no longer depend solely on his parents’ presence, their explanations, and their instruction. Though age 13 was and is considered the age of adulthood in Judaism, Jesus is already engaging on his own at 12—and he’s brilliant. Though the way he chooses to do this creates some tension in his family that Dr. Phil would have a field day with, this experience underscores just how special this child really is.
And despite the widely popular Christmas carol which asks over and over and over whether Mary knew just how special Jesus was—she really did know.
If you go through the gospel of Luke, after almost all of the odd circumstances and encounters that surrounded Jesus’ birth and childhood, you will find one small line that often gets overlooked: “and Mary treasured these things in her heart.”
In her heart, she certainly had a long list already: Gabriel appearing to her, her visit to Elizabeth, the shepherds and the magi, the questions Jesus has asked and the way he seems to intuitively know who God is and the ways God works.
It may take her, and us, a while to wrap our heads around the idea that Jesus is fully God and fully human—and that ‘God with us’ doesn’t just mean sometimes, when we look good and feel good and no one is anxious and everybody gets along.
Dr. William Danaher says it this way: “In the context of this passage, the incarnation teaches that God can be found even in difficult familial circumstances. It teaches that God’s wisdom is available to the young as well as to the old, which means that we must make room for God to surprise us with unexpected revelations given by unusual messengers. It teaches us that though God’s wisdom and holiness remind us of our limitations, it is precisely within these limitations that wisdom is often revealed. The incarnation represents the moment in which this wisdom enters the human sphere in all its contradictions, so that nothing is left without transformation and transfiguration.”
Much later, the Apostle Paul would talk about his own failure and contradiction and weakness in his second letter to the Corinthians. He says: “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’”
Faith like a child is knowing that you are at home in God’s house.
Faith like a child is receiving correction, and learning to love the people around you even better.
Faith like a child is knowing that even when tensions rise and you’re feeling extra sassy and you don’t want to do what’s being asked of you, you are still and always held by a love you are not required to deserve.
Every year, as we hear some of the same stories told in slightly different ways, we hear the good news again and again: God has come to us, in humility and vulnerability, so that we might have life and life abundant.
let us rejoice, y’all, because God is with us!
 William J. Danaher, in: David L. Bartlett. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Kindle Locations 5499-5501). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.