A story of Christmas, doubt, belief, and a twelve year old boy, all based on the text of Luke 2:41-52. Listen or read the text below. Enjoy!
Two days ago I’m guessing many of you spent the day unwrapping presents, gathered together with friends, family and loved ones, and shared a Christmas meal together. Perhaps you enjoyed a bottle of wine or some eggnog too, yum. More importantly, I hope you carved out some time that special day to celebrate the birth of the Christ child, born of a virgin Mary, in a lowly manger, surrounded by a heavenly host singing Glory to God in the Highest, Peace on Earth to All!
Or maybe you didn’t have any of that, and spent the day alone, without friends or family, dining in solitude, longing for something that next quite materialized. This season can do that to us sometimes, setting up these lofty ideals that don’t always work out. Heck, half the Christmas lights on my house burned out on Christmas Eve. It made my return home from the candlelight services here on the 24th a bit of a downer. I still need to get those lights fixed, the way they are now just doesn’t seem right.
But here we are, on the 27th of December, only two days after celebrating the birth of the Christ child, and we’re asked to dwell on a story of pre-teen, twelve year old Jesus. Where has the time gone? Jesus grew up awfully fast in those two days, didn’t he? Scripture is surprisingly silent about what Jesus was up to as a child growing up. A few months before the birth of Jesus we can read of visits from angels. At the birth there are shepherds, an innkeeper, a manger, and even more angels. And then there are the magi, who came to visit later, possibly a couple of years after the birth of Jesus.
Beyond that scripture gets really quiet about Jesus until his ministry begins at age 30. How does Jesus, the Son of God, the Son of Man, grow up between the ages of 2 and 30? There’s a lot we just don’t know. The reading today from Luke 2 is the only bit of information in the New Testament we have that covers this twenty-eight year time span.
Don’t you Believe Me?
This gap in scripture got me thinking about what life must have been like for this young family. There is something decidedly different about a family that contains the savior of the world. And yet here Mary and Joseph are, normal people in their own way, surrounded by normal, everyday folks. Surrounded by friends, family, and neighbors, people probably not too different from you and I. Imagine what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph, trying to navigate their way through everyday life while trying to raise the Son of God.
Imagine Mary, as a young mother, trying to explain to the neighbors this wondrous story. “That’s right, an angel appeared to me,” Mary might have said. “The angel said I was pregnant, and my baby would be born holy. The angel told me this child of mine is the Son of God! Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that awesome? What do you mean you don’t believe me?!? No, I was *NOT* doing anything I shouldn’t have been doing! I wasn’t married yet! I was a good Jewish girl, I was! Don’t you believe me?”
Imagine Joseph, as a young father, trying to explain to his carpenter co-workers his version of the story. “Yeah, Mary and I were engaged when I found out she was pregnant, man, that was tough. I knew I wasn’t this baby’s daddy. I was totally going to break off the engagement, what a mess. But then an angel appeared to me in a dream. And the angel told me the same thing Mary was saying. The angel said the Holy Spirit is the father, that I should still tie the knot with Mary. And that we should name the baby Jesus. Did you know that name, Jesus, Emmanuel, means God with us? That’s what the angel told me. No, I don’t think Mary was seeing anyone else, she’s a good Jewish girl. Yes, of course I listened to that angel, wouldn’t you? Don’t you believe me?”
Imagine Jesus, growing up, surrounded by all this drama, in some ways just like any other kid, even though he wasn’t just any other kid. If children of that era were anything like the kids of today, then growing up as Jesus couldn’t have been any cakewalk. Imagine the playground chatter Jesus may have overheard, as the rumors started to fly. “I heard his parents weren’t married when his mom was pregnant. Oh yeah, I heard Joseph isn’t even his real Dad. Then who is his father? I dunno, go ask Jesus, I bet he has some crazy story like usual.”
Questions of belief and doubt around the identity of Jesus as a youth must have been palpable, there’s just no getting around it. In modern terms, there are two basic ways we can view the birth narrative of Jesus. Either he is just another child, born of questionable events, earthly in every way, another broken part of a broken world. Or Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, born of miraculous events, both fully human and fully divine, ready to fulfill prophecy and become the Savior of the world.
It’s a huge distinction, these two views, bigger than any family drama that’s ever been on the Jerry Springer show. And bigger than any paternity test ever featured by Maury Pauvich.
Perhaps Mary and Joseph had conversations like this frequently as Jesus grew up. Perhaps after hearing this unbelief from friends and family, over and over, they stopped sharing the identity of their firstborn son as much. As a parent it’s hard to handle when others don’t think as highly of your child as you do. At least it is for me, maybe it is for other parents too. Did Mary and Joseph got caught up in the day-to-day todo’s of raising a family just like any other family? Perhaps, as Jesus grew older and his birth faded into a memory Mary and Joseph began to have their doubts about the identity of their son too. Perhaps.
Jesus in the Temple
All this leads us into our gospel reading for today. The story begins simply enough, with Jesus and his parents traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover festival. They did this every year, part family vacation, part religious pilgrimage. But this year something was different. When the festival ended Jesus decided to hang around the temple, unbeknownst to his parents, who began the long walk back home.
After a day of travel Mary and Joseph realized they hadn’t seen their Son for a while and began to look for him among their fellow travelers, their friends and relatives. How embarrassing that must have been for them. “Hey, have you seen Jesus?” Mary would ask. “He should be around here somewhere.” “You lost the Son of God?” their friends may have retorted. “What kind of mother are you?” Oh, their friends and family must have been talking in some very unkind ways.
Not seeing Jesus in the group of travelers Mary and Joseph went back to Jerusalem to search for him some more. After three days of searching – their twelve year-old don was missing for THREE DAYS – they found Jesus, still in the temple. If I were in Mary and Joseph’s shoes, having lost my pre-teen child that long I’d have called the cops, formed search groups, and made sure photos and information were all over social media. I’d be in a panic, anxious and worried, not sleeping too well either. I’d have some stern words for this kid too. Do not stray from mom and dad kiddo, it’ll get you in trouble.
And that’s pretty much what we’re told in scripture. After finding Jesus Mary exclaims “Child, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been searching for you, in great anxiety.” It sounds like Mary, a Jewish mother, is applying some old fashioned guilt here to teach her son a lesson.
Now listen to what happens next, the tables are about to turn. Jesus, in his first speaking role of scripture, says to his parents “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I’d be in my Father’s house?” Jesus doesn’t respond with an apology, or even act defiant. Instead he asks a simple question followed by a rhetorical one, “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know? I’m in my Father’s house.”
I don’t know much about pre-teens, it’s been over 25 years since I’ve been one, and our two kids are still young. To help with this knowledge gap I asked a friend, Stacey Kade, about what it is that makes pre-teens different from both children and adults. Stacey writes books for young adults, so she thinks about what makes this age group special a lot. She told me the thing to keep in mind is that pre-teens *feel* like adults, they are smart enough and old enough to have opinions that differ from the adults in their lives.
It’s hard for parents, perhaps even for parents like Mary and Joseph, to recognize the split between the kid who still needs guidance and the kid making the first forays into independence. Pre-teens are working to figure out their identities, separate from their parents, and seek ways to communicate that identity with others.
Up until this moment the identity of Jesus – as the Son of God, the Emmanuel, the Christ – had been exclaimed by angels, by priests, by prophetesses. And now, in this moment, the first speaking role for Jesus recorded in scripture, he finds his own voice to make this claim.
“Why are you searching for me?” Jesus asks. “Didn’t you know I’d be in my Father’s house? If you listen close enough to this text you can almost hear Jesus gently reminding his parents of this identity. If there was any doubt in Mary and Joseph, Jesus wants them to cast that doubt aside. Instead of two parents teaching their twelve year old son a lesson, the tables have turned. Jesus is growing up, coming into his own; starting to sound like a teacher in his own right. Come on mom, come on dad, you heard from the angels, the priests, the prophets. They told you who I was. Don’t you still believe them? Don’t you believe me?
As you reflect back on Christmas, that day we celebrated just two days ago, there are a couple of ways we can view this festive season.
Christmas can be just a cultural tradition, filled with all the trappings of trees, gifts, shared meals, darkened churches filled with candles, voices raised singing Silent Night once again. Christmas can be that, a moment in time, or a day, or 12 days, or even a six-week celebration that starts after Thanksgiving, ends on Epiphany. And that’s all well and good. Christmas is a tradition that brings people together in special ways. It celebrates high ideals for humanity. It helps us pass the time. Christmas will be here again in less than 365 days, it’ll be festive again, it’ll be fun again, I guarantee it.
Or Christmas, for you and I, can be something so much more. It can be a bold claim, a recognition that a baby lying in a manger was about to change everything. It can be a reminder, that a 12 year old boy, separated from his parents, spending time in his Father’s house, was wise beyond his years. It can be a look ahead, to the life, the death and resurrection of one Man that would forever rock the world.
But for Christmas to symbolize all that asks a little more from us. It asks to us to take a close look at ourselves, to consider any lingering doubts we may have about the miraculous birth story. And if Mary and Joseph can doubt, even for a moment, and can miss the divine calling of their own Son, then doubt can linger within any of us.
So before you put away your nativity set in the coming days I’d like to ask you to do something. In that nativity set notice the angels, singing glory to God in the highest. Take heed of the miniature Mary and Joseph, given the most important job two people have ever had. Consider the shepherds, now freed of fear, that came to worship the Christ child. Look inward, to where you find faith. Look inward, to where you still doubt. Then take that baby, lying in a manger and listen. Listen closely. Don’t you believe me, Jesus asks? I do.