Text: Luke 2:41-52
As a seminary student I spent a year at Virginia Tech, serving as a Campus Ministry Intern. Over spring break, I took 12 students to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to work at a place called the Graffiti Center. In the midst of drugs and poverty and empty buildings as well as early stages of gentrification, the Graffiti Center had a significant ministry, and we were there for a week to work and to learn.
On Sunday morning, I took the students to worship at the historic Riverside Church, the cathedral–like church built by John D. Rockefeller. Riverside is dually affiliated with the ABC and the UCC. It was St. Patrick’s’ Day and Riverside’s pastor at the time, William Sloan Coffin, as Irish as they come, was in rare form. It was quite an experience for some mostly Southern Baptist kids from Virginia.
The transportation alone was quite an experience. After the service, we went to the subway station to ride back to Graffiti. We were going to “Take The ‘A’ Train,” just like in the song. We waited for what seemed like a long time. Then an express train pulled up on the track behind us. We realized that the express would take us to where we needed to go, and faster, so we all got on. That is, all of us got on except for William.
William was a freshman. He was kind of backward, very socially awkward. If you had to choose one of the twelve students to get lost from the group, it definitely would not have been William.
We were on the train for a minute or so when we realized that William was not with us. I was responsible for this group and I can’t tell you the awful sense of panic I felt.
We got off the train at our stop and waited. And waited. No William. He didn’t take the next train. Or the next. Or maybe he did, but he didn’t get off where he was supposed to. Of course, this was before everybody had cell phones.
I sent a couple of students back to the station near Riverside Church and a couple others to check a few stops further down the line. A couple of us waited at our stop, and the others went back to the Graffiti Center. I also instituted an immediate buddy system.
If I knew all of the details at the time, I would have been even more concerned. William did not remember which stop was ours; in fact, he couldn’t even remember that we were working at the Graffiti Center. He only had 25 cents in his pocket. All he could remember was the name of a big Catholic Church a couple of blocks from the Graffiti Center. But he did remember that we had eaten in Chinatown the night before, and that it wasn’t all that far from Chinatown to the Graffiti Center. So he got off at Chinatown and wandered around, asking a few people if they knew where St. Stanislaus was, or whatever the name of that church was. Finally, miraculously, he ran into a homeless person who happened to be a regular at the Graffiti Center, and Frank walked him back.
That was a long time ago, but it still scares me when I think about it. If you have ever lost a child – even if it is someone else’s child and even if the child is 18 years old – you know what it is to have that sudden feeling of panic and terror. Maybe you are in a store and you turn around and your 3 year old just isn’t there, and it just scares you to death.
Mary and Joseph absolutely knew that feeling. They had been to Jerusalem for Passover. It was a big trip. They traveled with a large group of friends and family. On their way home, they were on the road a full day when they started to worry. They had assumed that Jesus was with his cousins and some other boys his age, on the road ahead of them. But he wasn’t. He wasn’t behind them, either. He wasn’t anywhere to be found. They kept expecting him to show up, but he never did.
Feeling that dread and panic, they decided they had to go back to Jerusalem. They arrived back in the city, checked the place they had stayed, checked the market, asked friends there if they knew where Jesus was, but no luck. It was another whole day before they finally found him.
Where was Jesus? Jesus was in the temple, sitting among the teachers and asking questions.
I love that Luke includes this story. It is the only glimpse we have of Jesus as an adolescent. Luke is especially interested in sharing key developmental moments in Jesus’ life. We have his birth as well as his circumcision and presentation at the temple. We have this episode at age 12, shortly before he would officially become an adult member of the community at age 13. And then we have Jesus’ baptism. Here, we have a glimpse of Jesus the Tween. He is not that adorable baby in the manger, but he is not an adult with complete independence and authority either. He is in-between.
His parents find Jesus in the temple, listening to the teachers and asking questions. And everybody was amazed by what he had to say. He’s 12 years old.
Well, he might be 12 years old and he might be Jesus, but like any 12 year old he can drive his parents crazy. When they finally found him, Mary says, “What’s the matter with you?” That’s a rough paraphrase.
There is a fantastic medieval painting of this scene. It was painted in 1342 by Simone Martini of Sienna. Check this out.
Mary asks, “What were you thinking?” while Joseph asks the same thing through his gestures. But take a look at Jesus’ face. As a 12 year old, everybody has that look on their face at some point. His arms are crossed and he has that look of exasperation with his parents. It looks like he is rolling his eyes.
There are a lot of reasons I love that Luke included this story, but I appreciate that there is this episode that includes the dynamics of adolescence – of that time between childhood and adulthood.
Jesus is 12. Everybody heads back to Nazareth but he stays at the temple. Most 12 years olds were not really into deep discussions of Torah, but Jesus was different. I mean, everybody is a little different, but this was Jesus.
Mary says, “Your father and I have been worried” and Jesus says, “I’m in my father’s house.” He is back-talking his parents. And then - he is obedient, a child going home with his parents. That is what it is to be in between childhood and adulthood – in between dependence and autonomy. He is learning be his own person. He will eventually go his own way but he will always have this close bond with his family, concerned for his mother even in his final hours.
Mary and Joseph find him having a deep conversation with scholars at the temple, displaying a spiritual depth they had not seen before. They were somewhere in between “I’m so proud of you” and “What is wrong with you?”
This is a story of Jesus’ humanity. He was human as we are, and he could drive his parents crazy just like we could, and just like our children can. But this story also gives us a clue as to what and who Jesus was becoming. He had been “about my Father’s business,” as some translations have it. He was learning and immersing himself in the study of scripture.
Looking at the whole episode, it strikes me that the unsung heroes of this story are the teachers in the temple. They are hardly even characters. We don’t know exactly who they are, or their names, and they don’t say anything. But I love the community learning that happens here. The teachers in the temple include Jesus in the conversation. He comes, like others, to learn, and they don’t dismiss him because he is a kid. And what happens is interactive.
Jesus is learning and asking questions, but he is also offering his thoughts and answers. Everyone was amazed at his understanding.
It is not patronizing – the teachers don’t say “isn’t it cute, this 12 year old knows his scripture.” Jesus is genuinely included. He is learning the tradition, even as he in time will expand the tradition and go beyond the tradition. It also strikes me that his parents traveled one day’s distance, then had to travel back, then it took perhaps a day to find him. You can imagine that the teachers saw to it that Jesus had a place to stay and food to eat, that they looked out for him until his parents showed up.
I think about the role of young people in the community of faith. They are learning and growing, but they are also fully a part of the community right now, and we can learn from them. I appreciate that this often happens in our church. Of course we have all depended on younger people, maybe on the 12 year olds we know, to help us with technology over these past months. And there are plenty of families where one or both parents are working from home while kids are also at home trying to do online school, and everybody is learning together how to make it all work.
But it is more than that. The questions and perspectives and ideas of everyone are important and valuable. Younger people can offer new ideas and new perspectives that we need to hear. The teachers in the temple model an inclusive, community approach to learning.
This is the first Sunday of a new year. Thank God for that. The last year was awful, but if we learned anything it is that we cannot predict what the future will hold. We enter this year maybe a little wiser. We know there will be change. We know there will be challenges. And we need the contributions of everyone as together we navigate the road ahead.
Now one more thing this morning. The text says that Mary and Joseph did not understand Jesus. You know what? They were not the only ones. His disciples did not fully understand the grown-up Jesus. Neither did folks in his hometown. Nor the religious establishment, nor the political/economic powers that be. And the same is true today. I have to confess that it is true for myself: I don’t always understand Jesus.
You might say that like Mary and Joseph, we are all trying to find Jesus.
A lot of Jesus’ stories and sayings leave us scratching our heads. It can be hard for us to understand the depth of Jesus’ love and commitment and self-sacrifice. It can be hard to understand the idea of power in weakness, or that the last shall be first, or the notion of loving our enemies. It can be hard to understand how the poor and the meek and those who mourn can be blessed. We can’t fully understand life and love that is greater even than death.
But we are learning. Like Jesus at the temple, we are all learning. Thanks be to God. Amen.