January 3, 2010
Almighty God, may your Word be our light in the darkness, and may these words help to spread that light in the world. Amen.
When I was a kid I spent a great deal of time in the public library. As a very young child, I haunted the children’s room of our local library, which was located in an old house, conveniently within walking distance of my own. In the first couple of years after I learned to read, I read through that children’s room, bottom to top. One of my favorite parts was a collection of biographies written for children. The characters were familiar—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Dolly Madison, Molly Pitcher, Florence Nightingale, George Washington Carver, and many more. I think my love of American history might have been born in reading those stories. But what I loved most about them is that they didn’t start with adult characters—they focused on the childhoods of these famous figures. Of course, looking back I can recognize that much of what they contained must have been fiction; enough historical accuracy to be credible, but made-up stories to fill in the gaps. Nonetheless I treasure those books for what they taught me and for the way that they made historical figures real.
We don’t have many stories about the boy Jesus. In fact, today we hear the only story in our canonical gospels that deals with Jesus between his birth and his baptism, marking the beginning of his ministry some 30 years later. There are, of course, apocryphal stories about Jesus as a child to be found in writings not included in our canon of scripture. The best known of these is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a collection of tales that has Jesus creating birds out of clay, bringing dead things back to life, and yes, even using his superhuman powers in ways that aren’t entirely nice—perhaps one reason they are excluded from our canon!
Although it is not meant to be a biography, as we understand them, Luke’s gospel, has the fullest account of Jesus’ early years that we are afforded in our four gospels. Luke begins his story with the visit of the angel to Mary, announcing her impending pregnancy. He recounts the birth in Bethlehem, the homage paid to the infant by the humble shepherds, and the trip to Jerusalem to the Temple for the presentation of the infant Jesus, a trip during which Simeon and Anna recognize the infant for who he is. And then we pick up with today’s gospel. Jesus is 12—not quite yet a man, but certainly no longer a small child. The family has traveled to Jerusalem, as most faithful Jewish families did, to be at the Temple for the holy days of Passover. In many ways, these annual trips must have been like a big family reunion, and it’s easy to imagine Mary feeling comfortable with Jesus mingling in the crowds. It’s only when they are on the way home that she becomes alarmed when she can’t find him. I can imagine her growing feelings of fear and panic as she searched for him, and her mixture of exasperation and relief when Jesus turns up safe and sound in the Temple. And I can hear her saying, “What were you thinking? Didn’t you know we’d be worried?”
Like most preadolescents, Jesus has a ready answer “Why would you worry? Don’t you know I belong in my father’s house?” And as she had earlier, Mary pondered this in her heart.
I love this story. I love it as a mother because it is so very real. Jesus, like any other preadolescent, is wrapped up in himself—what he needs, what he wants, with little regard for his parents’ feelings. It’s not mean, it’s not malicious; it’s just preadolescent. He’s on that developmental quest to figure out what it means to grow up, to figure out just who he is and what he is about.
And I love this story because Jesus is so very human. We can relate, can’t we? As a child or as a parent, we’ve been there, done that. Like Jesus, we have to figure out who we are and what we are called to be in this world. We have to break away from the comfort of our parent’s care and learn to stand on our own. And sometimes in doing so we hurt the ones we love, or we frighten them or cause them worry. It’s unintentional but it’s real.
When Jesus stays behind at the Temple, worrying his parents, doing what HE needs to do, he is revealing a very human side—Jesus is incarnate, enfleshed; he’s human like the rest of us. And yet, what Jesus says and does at the Temple reveals something else to us—his divinity. For even as he seeks validation as a preadolescent, he reveals the wisdom and foresight that mark his divinity. Jesus may be figuring out what he is about but he knows in a very real way WHOSE he is. He’s very clear when he says to Mary, “I was in my father’s house.” For Jesus, knowing that, knowing who his father is, is the key to all the rest. WHOSE he is determines WHO he is; it shapes his ministry and sets him on a journey that will end at the empty tomb. For Jesus, knowing WHOSE he is is everything.
As a developmental psychologist by training, I could give you a good lecture on how important it is for adolescents to figure out WHO they are; about how they must question all the values and beliefs their parents have worked so hard to instill in them, how they must question them and make them their own, and figure out who they will be in this world. And while I know that to be a crucial part of development, I also know that it leaves something out—it leaves out what Jesus shows us in today’s gospel. We don’t need just to know who we are—we need to know WHOSE we are. Jesus was, is, the Son of God, but we are God’s children, created in God’s image, beloved of God. And knowing that grounds us, roots us, gives us the foundation we need to figure out all the rest, to be the people we were made to be, to live the way Jesus calls us to live. Knowing WHOSE we are is just as important for us as it was for the 12-year-old Jesus.
This morning we will baptize baby Jacob Marc, incorporating him fully into the body of Christ, the church. At the end of that ritual we will sign his forehead with oil, sealing him as Christ’s own forever. What better way to remind ourselves WHOSE we are. We are God’s beloved children, we are sealed as Christ’s own, we are infinitely precious, each and every one of us, to the One who made us. And that is the most important thing for us to know.