The Boy Jesus in the Temple
Now every year [Jesus’} 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.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
Adolescence is a special time and not always an easy one. It’s a time of discovery and exploration, pulling away and reaching for some measure of independence, and learning responsibility and new roles in relationships. It can be difficult to connect with young people in this age group. I know educators who teach middle school who will tell you that is a particular calling itself.
Typically, the process of confirmation in churches occurs during the ‘Tween and early teen years in the same way that age for bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah arrives for our siblings in the Jewish faith. Other secular rituals that denote coming of age may also be held during this time period in the development of a child becoming an adult member of the community.
In one of the few stories told of Jesus’ life before launching into full-fledged ministry, we meet an adolescent Jesus who doesn’t seem to be any easier to relate to than a normal adolescent. The family embarked on a trip to observe the festival of Passover, it’s time to head home, and Jesus has disappeared without asking or even informing his parents of his plans. It’s a jarring leap forward for the first Sunday after Christmas in a year in which we encountered Jesus as a baby just 2 days ago.
Luke presents the birth narrative and formative years of Jesus as a series of journeys–for Jesus, his parents, and those who encounter him like Elizabeth, the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna. Even the angel Gabriel has been “sent by God.” No one just shows up, they set out and arrive in the various places touched by this story of the child Jesus entering the world. These instances aren’t generated by chance; there is a divine order at work here, often connected to the holy places of the people found in feasts and festivals, the city of Jerusalem, and the temple.
The first two chapters also contain numerous prophetic utterances. The characters involved narrate the action of which they are apart. Not only does the angel speak for God, Elizabeth, Mary, Zechariah, Simeon, and Anna proclaim the coming of Jesus. In this week’s passage, we finally get to hear from Jesus. It’s a very human exchange between mother and child.
Imagine their fear for their young son. They thought he was safe only to discover that he was missing. They must have been panicking, praying, and desperately hoping they would find him well.
This experience in the temple does not launch Jesus into public ministry. Presumably, this story gets told by Mary to the disciples long after Jesus’ earthly ministry concludes. It’s a story told from the perspective of one who understands its significance. It’s told from Mary’s point of view, and so the elements described would have been cemented in her memory of these events.
Memories, of course, never match the original events. They become distorted by time and other experiences. Memories that some of us hold closely get forgotten by others because of the impact in the moment or in subsequent encounters. This episode in the private life of Jesus and his parents betrays that Jesus, his power, his ministry, and the revelation of his being appeared in stages. It was a process that Luke details in meticulous steps unlike Mark who is so urgent that none of the life of Jesus before he goes public gets recounted.
The notation that Jesus was obedient to Mary and Joseph isn’t in contrast to the dialogue expressed in this passage. It reinforces the character of Jesus. It counters our natural inclination to suspect that Jesus was being disrespectful or confrontational towards his mother. Jesus was being true to self and living out the mission he was called to fulfill with awareness and sharing that awareness as an act of respect to his earthly parents.
There is a song that gets played often during this time of year, “Mary Did You Know?”
It speculates whether Mary understood the significance of her baby boy or knew what was to come from his life. Part of the challenge of this passage is that it seems clear from the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) that Mary prophesied about Jesus. She points to his entrance into the world as a disruptive and transformative force that will bring about the rule and reign of the Holy One over the oppressive powers of this world. But, in the routine of living a life of caring for a child, from changing dirty diapers to a family trip observing a religious festival, the wonder of the Sovereign One’s promise loses prominence to the mundane requirements and responsibilities of daily living.
The timing of this passage in the lectionary is fitting. It feels like we just left worship only to have to turn right back around to enter the sacred space, just as Mary and Joseph had to turn around and return to the temple to find Jesus.
- Sometimes, we don’t find Jesus in the big celebrations of the festival.
- Sometimes, we don’t locate Jesus within the companionship of family gatherings.
- Sometimes, we have to search for an encounter after the big day has ended and we’re supposed to return to our routine and normal lives.
- Sometimes, we don’t get it the first time. There’s so much we don’t understand.
And, at the same time, when we reconnect with Jesus, we find that Jesus was right there in the holy space that we carry. And, there’s so much to treasure in our hearts.
Picture in your mind a child you know who is remarkable. It can be your own child, or someone else’s—but focus your mind’s eye on a remarkable child. What makes that boy or girl so special? Is he or she a gifted musician or student or athlete? Is he or she particularly mature for his or her age?
Is he or she sensitive and articulate or easygoing and a pleasure to be around?
Scholars observe that up to this point, all the signs of Jesus’ special nature or mission have been to or through others—the angel, Mary, Elizabeth and Zachariah, the shepherds. But now, Jesus is beginning to have his own awareness. There were, in Jesus, vague stirrings of his own identity, if not his vocation. Jesus was a remarkable child.
If we are honest, in most churches we don’t have very high expectations for our children. Instead of working to incorporate them into the full life of the body of Christ, instead of allowing them to minister before the Lord as Samuel did, we let them light the candles, we have the children’s choir sing occasionally, and we let them participate in annual Christmas pageants. We don’t expect them to be able to accomplish much more. Instead of allowing them to have in-depth dialogue with the rabbis and teachers as Jesus did, some churches whisk them out to children’s church because we don’t expect them to be able to sit through “the real sermon.”
Church-growth folk tell us that for every three ministers who are retiring, there is only one young person entering the ministry. Although there are many reasons for this, a significant one is that in many of our churches, we no longer expect God to call and we no longer expect or encourage our young people to hear and respond when God speaks. Jesus had a special calling, but he did not hear it in a vacuum. He was surrounded by wise and discerning adults who helped him listen and respond.
Who are those remarkable children in our midst? Let’s do a better job and helping them discern and grow in their faith.