41 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44Assuming 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. 45When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48When 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.’49He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ 50But they did not understand what he said to them. 51Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
We spent a season listening to angels, watching for a star, waiting for a birth. We spent a season journeying to Bethlehem, preparing our homes, preparing our hearts for the day we celebrated the birth of a tiny baby in a stable. There was music and dancing and celebration. Carols in every store, greenery on mantels and lights on trees. And then poof… when we got in our cars this morning the Christmas carol station had returned to soft rock. The lights in neighborhoods are beginning to be packed away for next year, and churches return to their rhythms and routines as the nativities and Advent wreaths are carefully wrapped and packed away until next year. The season is over.
How we feel today is a bit how the temple in Jerusalem felt that day after Passover when Jesus was there. The inns emptied as pilgrims took to the roads to return home. The stables that provided temporary homes for donkeys and other animals were empty. The vendors selling the sacrificial doves moved on to the next temple for the next festival. The temple was peaceful and quieter than it had been in weeks. And over there, perhaps in a classroom or in the front office is a group of people – teachers – -deep in conversation about the scriptures. If we look closely, we see among them a boy – -almost a man. He is listening intently, asking questions, and, as we have been told, amazing them with his listening and understanding. This boy was sitting with the best of the best, holding his own in intense theological discussion. He was, of course, Jesus.
Jesus: The child whose coming was foretold by prophets
The one whose conception was announced by angels
The infant whose arrival set a star blazing in the night sky.
He doesn’t stay a baby for long, does he? Today’s reading is the only account in the Gospel narrative of Jesus as a child, and even then he is just barely a child. At the age of 12 he was on the edge of adulthood in Jewish tradition – at 13 Jesus would be considered a man. This is the only glimpse we have of Jesus’ childhood. We don’t have any accounts of Jesus toddling in the kitchen behind Mary as she prepared the family meal. There are no endearing anecdotes about the toys he played with, his first day of school, or the first time he followed Joseph into the workshop and began to learn his trade. This is it – -the story of a 12 year old in the temple astonishing the teachers with is listening and with his questions.
Jesus’ family was a devout Jewish family. In the same chapter were we see the manger and the shepherds, we also read that on the 8th day of his life, the baby was circumcised according to the custom, and named Jesus. There is a rhythm to the second chapter of Luke: the custom calls for the extended family to travel to the temple and so they do. Jesus has an encounter they do not expect that reminds them of his divine nature, and then they return home to the routine of everyday Jewish life. A life marked by Sabbath and prayer. Of work and study. Jesus grows in wisdom and stature. When the time came he was taken to the temple and presented there, also according to the custom, with the appropriate offerings. It was during this first trip to the temple that Simeon and Anna spoke about him, proclaiming that he was the one who came to redeem Israel. They return home. The time comes again, and the extended family travels to the temple, where once again Jesus does something unexpected. When the group leaves Jerusalem and heads home, he stays behind and returns to speak with the teachers. His parents frantically search for him, thinking he is lost, though in his mind he is right where he is supposed to be.
Jesus says to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?” In his mind, Jesus was not lost. He knew exactly where he was and why he was there. Mary and Joseph should have known where to look for him in the first place. Duh. Sure, his parents were worried and upset, but where else would he be? He answers in the way that adolescents do so well – from a place that does not always understand the consequences of his actions on others. The fact that his parents had been frantic over his whereabouts probably did not even occur to him as he was dazzling the teachers in the temple with his smarts.
The first words he speaks are to Mary and Joseph, who have been frantically trying to find him. It was a full day after they left the temple before they knew he was missing. The trip to Jerusalem was a family affair, but this is not family as we know it. The entire village made the journey; friends and relatives traveled together and cared for one another along the way. It was a large extended family on the move together – aunts and uncles and cousins and parents and grandparents and nieces and nephews all journeying together. The fact that Mary and Joseph did not notice Jesus’ absence among the large group of relatives and friends until the next day was not a reflection of their parenting skills. Remember, Jesus was 12. He was old enough not to need to be at his parent’s side all the time, old enough to walk with his friends. He was of the age where he spent more time with the pack of boys his age traveling together than with their parents. In this tribe, it would not be uncommon for him to dine with friends or other families along the route, to be looked after by the adults in his community who claimed him as theirs. It would not be unlikely that a conversation occurred where Mary and Joseph wondered where he was and said to one another: “he probably had breakfast with Andrew and John. I’m sure he’s fine.” And then at lunchtime hearing from another mother “the boys were all together at lunch. I’m sure he’s with them.” It is only after some thorough checking that Joseph and Mary realize that no one has actually seen Jesus all day. They immediately turned and retraced their steps back to Jerusalem- -another full day’s journey back to find him.
The child they find is not Jesus in childhood, but Jesus in adolescence. Jesus in transition. They find Jesus in the gray area between childhood and adolescence. He was a child when the journey began and now he returns home claiming his own identity. Jesus is doing what 12 year olds are supposed to -he is beginning to establish who he is for himself. He is beginning to figure out what his gifts and skills and callings are. He is beginning to reach into adulthood and speak for himself, rather than let others speak for him. I remember 12 as the age when my friends and I could sit by ourselves in the movie theater or walk as a group to the neighborhood grocery store to pick up a gallon of milk– a 10 minute walk away. It is an age of testing limits and beginning to spread your wings.
Twelve is also the age where faith rituals become increasingly important. I find that it is around this time, sometimes younger, sometimes older, that children and youth begin to start asking some of the really big faith questions. This can be the age where their lives become busier and church sometimes slips down on the list of priorities. This stage of faith development is important – -it is now when patterns are set, and foundations that were laid in childhood are set. Foundations that will carry us through our lives.
The rhythms of church life that are set when we are young are often the ones we remember and cling to when we are older. I spend more of my time with those who are seniors than those who are youth, and have found something interesting in working with this age group. It is the rituals and rhythms that we set when we are younger that we return to for comfort when we are older. When I think about this, I think about one of the first people I ever visited in the hospital as a chaplain. I was fulfilling my hospital visitation requirements for my Pastoral Care class in seminary at Crawford Long Hospital in downtown Atlanta. One of the people I met was a woman we will call Shirley. Shirley was 84 and had Alzheimer’s. I would go visit her, and she would have no idea what day it was, what year it was, who I was or where she was. The first time I went to see her, Shirley’s nurse told me to approach a visit with her like a visit back in time, and part of our job was to figure out where and when she was that day. One day, I went in to see Shirley and she asked for her gloves and coat. I asked her where we were going and she said we were going to church. We spoke a little bit about church, and she said it was time for youth choir practice and then worship service. As we talked I figured out that not only was it Sunday, in Shirley’s mind, but it was also Easter. She was 12, the youth choir was singing that day, “And on Easter we go to church no matter what.” Shirley and I visited some more, and she sang me her favorite Easter hymns, and recited from memory her favorite Psalms. When I came back the next week, Shirley asked for her gloves and coat again. This time it was Christmas and we were going to the candlelight service. I visited Shirley 5 or 6 times. Every time I visited her it was the same thing – “may I have my coat and gloves please? It is time for church.” For Shirley, who was unsure where she was, unsure when she was, she knew church. She knew her faith. The rhythms set in her youth were now her markers of time – -she oriented her world around her memories of church life and the church seasons. She knew the scripture and the hymns of her youth. Even though we never left her hospital room, Shirley went to church, sang hymns and recited scripture every week.
We as a church are an important part of laying the faith foundations for all of our children – -even if ours are grown and gone or not here yet. Not only do we lay foundations, but also we build upon them. Jesus was in the temple astonishing Rabbis because someone saw gifts in him. Anna and Simeon saw it first and confirmed that he was the one sent by God to redeem Israel. Did hearing that story as he grew up enable Jesus to engage the teachers in the temple that morning? It is often people in church who see gifts in us that others may not. It is often the church that allows us to use our gifts in ways that the world cannot. It is through the rhythms of worship and study and mission and fellowship that we find spaces to encourage people to use their gifts and be part of a faith community. It is as past of a faith community that the routines and rituals shape and form who we are.
There is a rhythm of the church year, a rhythm to our lives that we feel just as Mary and Joseph and Jesus did. The high of Christmas is followed by the lull of January. While we pack away the crèche and put away the greenery, we do not pack away our faith. We simply move into another rhythm, another phase of the year. This is our time of being 12 – -our time of moving from the proclamations of shepherds and angels into our own actions and words. A time of moving from admiring the baby to doing the work the adult calls us to carry out in his name.
I think about the village that made the journey to Jerusalem – -the entire group of family and friends and aunts and uncles and cousins and babies and elders all on the road together. They returned to the temple time and time again as their faith called them to return. This was their foundation, their ritual, and their routine. It reminds me of us – -an extended family journeying together looking for Jesus. We return to the church week in and week out, when we seek Jesus, and when we have found him to share with others. We return to the community that shapes us, loves us, challenges us and sustains us. As individuals we are marked by the rhythms of the year, and as a church family we are marked by the liturgical seasons. We move in the cycles of Christmas and Easter and ordinary time, the rhythms of Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. We come to church to hear the stores of our faith, to learn and grow. We come as families seeking the ones who are stretching their wings and as those discerning who we are. We come to church when our faith is strong and we come to church when we think we have lost Jesus, when we turn around and suddenly he is not where we expect him to be – -when we think he is lost. We come to church seeking Jesus. And it is here we will always find him. Thanks be to God. Amen.