Text: Luke 2:41-52
Even for readers who have an inside scoop, the building sense of desperation is palpable. Mary and Joseph, searching frantically for at least three days to find their adolescent son. It’s every parent’s nightmare.
Last year for Christmas, trying to be a wise parent myself, I gifted my then 4-year-old son with a “Good Job Jar,” a homemade present to encourage positive behavior and introduce the idea of long-term goals. The concept is simple. Good behavior from a child such as helping with dishes, offering people compliments or being kind at school is rewarded with a marble that can be placed in the jar. When the jar gets full of marbles, Samuel receives a special treat—an outing, a favorite meal or a new toy. It was a hit, and on day one, we all knew what the first “reward” would be for filling the jar—a building block set to construct a track for marbles to work their way down a tower. A demo of the track kit was set up in the toy store at Marbles Kids’ Museum, and Samuel had been pining for one for a long time. After two months of increasingly consistent “please” and “thank you’s, following directions and going to sleep with minimal complaining at bed time, the “Good Job Jar” was filled to the brim and Samuel was ready to cash in. The two of us went to the kids’ museum, which for those who don’t know, is basically a cavernous, multi-level indoor arena for play, art and exploration. It’s not unusual for us to spend hours at a time in the museum wandering through the various play areas, but on this visit we had an express purpose. Samuel and I were going to the corner store, just inside the lobby, getting the building kit he had wanted, and going home. Of course, if you’ve ever been in a toy store with a child, you know it’s never that simple. It took Samuel about 2/10ths of a second to find the track set on the shelf before he gravitated to the demo model set up for playing in the corner of the store. He asked if he could play on the demo model while I checked out at the register, and since the entire store is only about the size of a large living room, I said “fine, but do not leave that spot.” There was one person in front me at the single register, and I could keep Samuel in view while I was waiting in the line. When it was my turn to check out, I paid and quickly turned around to walk toward the opposite corner of the store to get Samuel, but he wasn’t there. I walked back to the register, thinking he must have come to find me at the same time I was walking to him. I had only taken my eyes off of him for 30 seconds, after all. He couldn’t have gone far. Not there. I circle the store, which doesn’t take long, and he’s not anywhere inside. A little anxious, I step out into the lobby of the museum and scan left and right. He’s not there. I check out the first large play area, which by itself can consume whole days at the kids’ museum. I dart from one end around a bus and firetruck, across a puppet show stage, into a farm, and back to the firetruck. No luck. I’m getting more anxious. I check the store again, but still no sign of Samuel. I start wondering if I should ask the staff to make an all-call on the PA system. I wonder what they’ll think of the father who lost his son. I check the store one last time. Still no Samuel. Ashamed and not a little bit scared at this point, I move toward the main desk to ask for help, but walking toward me across the lobby is a security guard with my son in tow. I run up to them. “Where did you go? I told you not to leave that spot! What happened? Where were you?” Samuel gives me a blank stare. I introduce myself to the security guard and explain what happened. She said he was on the sidewalk just outside the door when she found him, and I felt another stinging wave of shame and fear crash down on me. I thanked the security guard, and reached out toward Samuel and told him it was time to leave. Instead of taking my hand, he latched on to the leg of the security guard and cried out “Mommy! My mommy!” I looked up at the security guard, worried now that she may doubt the legitimacy of my claim to this boy who is not talking to me, is not acknowledging me, and is certainly not off to a good start of refilling his newly emptied “Good Job Jar.” But her eyes communicate a lot of understanding, and just a bit of concern. I peeled Samuel off of her and hauled him straight out the door.
My lost child experience lasted maybe three minutes total, though in the midst of it, it felt like hours were sliding past. I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose a child for three days or more, as our text describes. Even before I was a parent myself, though, I always seem to empathize first with Mary and Joseph, the bewildered couple searching for their beloved son, who had only just been born a page earlier.
But what about Jesus? He is more than just a prop in this story. He is no longer the helpless babe wrapped in swaddling cloth, even if he is not yet the bold rabbi preaching good news of the coming Reign of God. There is a familiarity to this adolescent Jesus, whose sharp perceptiveness draws the attention of strangers, but whose dumbfounded self-absorption leaves him clueless as to why his parents are so worked up. Anyone who has ever been around, or been, a teenager, should find this familiar. “What, mom? You looking for me? Why? You know I’m alright.”
There is an unpolished humanity in this child Jesus, and it’s worth paying attention to. This pericope from Luke is the only story of Jesus’ childhood recorded in any of the four canonical gospels. The apocryphal Gospel of Thomas spends a little more time contemplating the years between Jesus’ birth and public ministry, but the Jesus portrayed there is decidedly less human and relatable than the child Jesus we know from Luke. In Thomas’ account of 12-year-old Jesus at the temple, the other teachers are “put to silence” by his wisdom, while the biblical account seems to display a more mutually agreeable back-and-forth exchange. Thomas also tells of Jesus making a mud dam to stop up a stream, like a normal adventurous boy. Unlike typical children, though, Jesus claps his hands to bring his mud animals to life, and when another child breaks the mud dam Jesus pitches a fit and calls down a curse which leaves the other child dead. In one such instance, Thomas writes, “the parents of the dead child came to Joseph and blamed him and said, ‘Since you have such a child, you cannot dwell with us in the village; teach him to bless and not to curse. For he is killing our children.” In contrast, the child in Luke’s Gospel’s primary concern is balancing being faithful to what he believes God is calling him to do, and being obedient to his parents. The 12-year-old Jesus of Luke’s narrative has no magic powers. He expresses no messianic calling. There is no foreshadowing of the controversies to come, or of a cross. What there is, is a boy who has been brought up in a religious culture by faithful parents, who sense that he ought to be concerned about the things God is concerned about, and finds himself in a tense spot when his understanding of what God cares about comes into conflict with what his parents expect. Jesus says, I have to be about God’s things. There is an urgency there that can’t be quenched easily, and it doesn’t make sense to those around him, even if it is those same people—parents, relatives, neighbors—whose faithfulness and compassion and lessons about God and justice are what watered that seed of missional urgency to begin with. Somewhere between the beginning and end of Luke Chapter 2, Mary shifts from being one who says “I am the handmaid of God, let it be with me as you have said,” to “Jesus! What were you thinking?!”
This is a very human portrait. Jesus has been growing and learning, and he has caught a glimpse of God’s family. It’s a vision where the formerly marginalized are given a place to sit in the center of power. It’s a vision of a Commonwealth where people should be met first with expectation of trust, and where the circles of kinship extend beyond blood and lineage, and include all of humanity. It’s a vision that won’t let him go, and so he stays in Jerusalem while others are ready to get back to business as usual.
And this is where I think the story becomes not just about Mary and Joseph and the panic of parenting, and not just about Jesus and God becoming flesh and what that means for a pre-teen in the capital city, but it is a story for and about us. After the celebration was over, Jesus’ parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors and friends started on the way back to Nazareth, but he stayed behind, in Jerusalem. When have you found yourself lingering in your own Jerusalem while others were ready to get back to business as usual?
In the churches that I grew up in, I learned about Jesus, and I was taught that following Jesus was the most important thing I could decide to do in my life. I learned to read the Bible for comfort and guidance. I was told to follow it to the letter, but pretty soon after I moved up from the Children’s Story Book Bible to the real thing, I realized no one actually did that—thank God! But still, apparently we were supposed to take it seriously. Then one day, when I was a teenager, our Sunday School lesson was on another story about Jesus in Luke’s gospel, when a rich young ruler comes to Jesus and asks about eternal life. Jesus reminds him about how he is supposed to love his neighbors and honor his parents. “Check, check.” Don’t steal, don’t lie, etc. etc. “Check, check, check, check, check.” I, an educated male citizen of the most powerful empire in the world, rattle them off in unison with this rich young ruler from Luke’s story. Then comes the whammy. Jesus says, “One more thing. Sell all you have, and give the money to the poor. Then come follow me.” The story doesn’t end well for that rich young ruler. Our Sunday School teacher quickly assures everyone that this business about giving all your money to people experiencing deep poverty was something just for that one man in this one story about Jesus – it’s not a universal commandment or something we need to worry about. This business about money was just his burden. As you can probably surmise, social and economic justice were not in the vocabulary of my childhood faith. But they certainly are big topics in Luke’s gospel—from Mary’s Magnificat, which we heard in worship during advent, proclaiming that “God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty,” to this story of a 12-year-old child elbowing his way to the center of the table where the movers and shakers, the politicians and PhDs, are talking about serious things. The people who nurtured my childhood faith taught me to love Jesus, to love God and care about my neighbor, and to look to the Bible whenever I got confused about what that looked like. The problem is, the guidance I drew from the Christ I found in the Gospels didn’t lead me down the same path they had projected. I was entranced with Jerusalem—with a vision of what God wants for the world, and the Commonwealth Jesus proclaimed. I was longing for the beloved community I’ve gotten a precious taste of from time to time in worship with you, at the Round Table Fellowship in Finlator Hall, on a farm with refugees in Georgia or with formerly incarcerated people in Durham. At the same time, it seemed everyone else was ready to go back to Nazareth and keep doing things the way we had been doing.
When have you found yourself lingering in Jerusalem while others were ready to get back to business as usual? Perhaps it was following a trip to Cuba or Nicaragua, when your senses were overwhelmed by the disparity of global economic exploitation which we are all complicit in, in one way or another. Or perhaps it was in the release you found when your courage and the situation finally lined up and you came out to your loved ones, telling them that “Yes, I am gay, and it’s ok. I can still be a Baptist.” Maybe it was in the grace offered at a 12-step meeting, grace that seems so hard to come by at work or family reunions. Wherever you have found yourself struck by the urgency to be about God’s things, savor it. People you care about may not understand. The ones you love may get upset and worry about you. That’s ok. Your job is to soak up that Jerusalem moment—bask in it like the adolescent Jesus, treasure it in your heart like Mary did, and then, when the time is right, take it back with you Nazareth. It’s good news worth sharing.