The two Sundays after Christmas give us the opportunity to examine the stories about Jesus’ life after His birth and before His public ministry. Since there are so few Biblical texts that cover Jesus’ childhood, each story merits attention. This past Sunday the lectionary sent us to Luke 2:41-52, the story of Jesus being left behind at the Temple when He was 12 years old. This passage is the only glimpse we are given into Jesus’ childhood. It’s the only photograph in the family album. It’s a surprising story because it doesn’t portray a perfectly peaceful family. It shows parents who felt irresponsible when they inadvertently left their child behind. Most of us have had those moments of not being able to locate a child in our care. Our heart is in our throat. Our thoughts begin to spin out of control as panic takes over. Poor Mary and Joe spent three days scouring Jerusalem looking for their son before they found Him. The reunion elicited raw human emotions. Mary justifiably confronted Jesus who showed no sign of remorse for the obvious distress His parents were wearing on their faces. She sounds like us—demanding an answer for how her adolescent son could be so insensitive toward them. But Jesus seemed unfazed. In fact, He made Mary’s distress her problem, not His: “Why were you searching for me?” There’s a “duh” here that got cut out of the text, I’m quite certain.
“Duh! Where’d you think I’d be? Sitting at home with you guys?!”
The next words must have stung: “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Mary and Joseph knew from the very beginning of Jesus’ earthly life that He was not theirs. But this scene shows that mystery envelops the incarnation even for the couple who were the first to be let in on the secret. The humanness of their son had tricked them into thinking that He really was just like them, on track to live the life of a happy, healthy Jewish boy. But these words at the end of a three-day search popped that bubble. Jesus was separating from them and growing into His identity as the Messiah, the Son of God. The Divinity of Jesus began to surface after a seemingly “normal” childhood.
We learn some important facts about Jesus through this story. He was lovingly embraced into a human family. Even though His initial response to His searching parents must have hurt, He was obedient to them and returned to Nazareth where He grew into adulthood. The fact that Mary “treasured all these things in her heart” assures us that her relationship with Jesus was deeply satisfying even if there were bumps along the way. Barbara Brown Taylor expresses it in this way, “As becomes clear in today’s story, the enlarging of family boundaries does not come without stretch marks.” We all have stories about our “stretch marks”!
We also see that the Temple was an important place for Jesus. He was a Jew. The reason that His parents lost track of Him is because the Jewish community traveled as a group when making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Jesus was part of a faith community that could trust that children would be well cared-for by other moms and dads. The last time the scriptures speak of Jesus being in the Temple was when he was eight days old. He was carried in before he could walk. He was dedicated into God’s service before He could talk. Now, at the age when a Jewish boy celebrates his coming of age, Jesus was making the long trek to the Temple with His parents to celebrate the importance of the faith for Himself. When they found Him they learned that the Temple elders were amazed at Jesus’ wisdom. This would not be the last time that people marveled at His ability to delve deeply into scripture and interpret it in an accessible way. This chapter ends with the concluding statement: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” At age 12 Jesus was preparing for the next time He would come to the Temple–with a band of twelve men who would call themselves disciples!
I’m struck as I read this story of the importance of a faith family. Jesus’ transformation into the Savior of the world was built upon His upbringing in the Jewish faith. From birth to death, He was connected to the Temple and His people. Now, in His Church, we continue to raise our children in the faith. We baptize them and make vows to raise them in the Christian faith. We give them a chance to confirm that faith commitment for themselves when they come of age. We gather for worship regularly and allow different adults in the congregation to help raise them. We read Bible stories to them that help them get to know the story of our faith. One of the most memorable gifts I received as a child was a white leather(ette) Bible from my grandparents. It sits on a shelf in my office now, surrounded by newer interpretations with study notes. But I know that this is the Bible that first taught me the stories about Jesus that formed my faith. Just a few artistic images are scattered throughout the tissue-paper pages that highlight Jesus’ words with red ink. These images gave shape in my young mind to the Jesus we sang and read about in our Sunday school classes.
The story about Jesus continues in Luke 2 with Mary and Joseph finally finding Jesus. It was after the Passover celebration had ended. Jerusalem would have had reminders of the festival evident everywhere: dirty streets, lost and found items, a marketplace that looked as if a plague of locusts had swarmed through. It is a fitting passage for us to consider as we sit in homes strewn with bits of Christmas paper and tags; as we eat leftovers of Christmas feasts and begin to think about packing decorations away. In the aftermath of a great festival of the faith, we set our sights on God for the long haul, for the ordinary days.
One of the ways we learn about the faith from an early age is through our singing. We had our worship service on Sunday around breakfast tables and were able to share, in the intimacy of that setting, the songs that shaped our faith. Our Sunday School teachers had taught us the books of the Bible, the stories of wee little Zacchaeus and Father Abraham at an early age. VBS teachers, whether gifted at singing or not, led us in belting out “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine” with animated motions to accent the story line. We grew up knowing that “Jesus loves me…for the Bible tells me so..” Music is a central part to our Christian worship just as it was for our Jewish ancestors. If you look at the Psalms many state that they were sung and even had the accompaniment of musical instruments. After the Last Supper, it says in Mark’s Gospel, “When they had sung the hymn, they went out…” Jesus and His disciples grew up singing their praise to God. In a memory-loss unit, I’m always amazed that people still know some of the songs we sing and can often recite the Lord’s Prayer word for word, even if they don’t remember their own name! Music and liturgy in our worship go deep and continue to nourish us spiritually even after our cognitive abilities wane.
I invited my Sunday morning breakfast companions to choose a hymn that had helped shape their faith. They read their favorite verse for us then we sang that verse together with the inspired accompaniment of our pianist. Hands went up with suggestions of hymns that had a history for people. “In the Garden” was chosen by a member because her father had always sung that to her when she was young. Later he had cradled his grandchildren and offered that same musical lesson in the faith to them with more emotion than melody. We sang hymns that lifted up the power of prayer and the importance of Jesus’ life. One woman asked that we sing the first verse to “How Great Thou Art”, which we did with gusto. Another member suggested we continue with the fourth verse in memory of one of our long time members who had died in his sleep just that night before. With a mix of sadness and confidence we affirmed the eternal rest of our newly-departed brother with words penned more than sixty years ago: “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart! Then I shall bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim, ‘My God, how great thou art.’ Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee: how great thou art, how great thou art! Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee: how great thou art, how great thou art!” Affirming our faith in Christ through melody and lyrics produced tears because we were reminded of those who had instilled the faith that allows us decades later to face death with resurrection hope.
Looking at this one snapshot of Jesus’ family from the Nazareth album reminds us of the lessons of the faith that start young and grant us guidance for all of life. We pin our hope on a human family that sacrificially raised the Son of God as a gift for us. I appreciated the insight of William Danaher, Jr. as he concluded his commentary on this text from Luke’s gospel: “That the incarnation took this shape in the life of the holy family gives hope for families of all kinds and conditions on this day. The model of living that the holy family offers is not, as is sometimes depicted in romantic paintings and portraits, that of a family perfectly ordered and without division or differences. Rather, it is of a family that lives into messy moments with the confidence that God in Christ Jesus has entered and redeems them from within.”
Redemption amidst messy moments in life? I’ll carry that promise into the new year!