One of my favorite Christmas cards depicts the classic stable scene in its center. Mary is holding the baby Jesus and gazing adoringly into his eyes with a broad smile on her face. Joseph stands behind her, peering over her shoulder, and shepherds and animals are gathered all around. Off to the side, though, are two other women also holding babies as they look on the scene. Rolling her eyes, one woman leans over and whispers to the other, “Man, the way she goes on about that kid, you’d think he was God!” Not exactly Scriptural, but definitely understandable under the circumstances. When parents get together, parenting all too often becomes a competitive sport, tossing signs of future greatness batted back and forth like tennis volleys. To listen to some parents talking, you’d think their toddlers are already reading Tolstoy, or solving quadratic equations, or running a 4-minute mile, or playing a Rachmaninoff piano concerto.
The difference, of course, is that we’re not relying on a proud parent’s assessment when it comes to Jesus. There have been angels explaining the child’s destiny and singing praises to God; there have been shepherds visiting to see for themselves and celebrating God’s grace; there have been exotic wise men from the East bearing extravagant gifts. It’s a heck of a beginning for what would otherwise seem to be just a child born scandalously early to a rough-hewn Galilean carpenter and his young fiancée. But what happens when the music fades, when the shepherds and the wise men depart, when Mary and Joseph finish the registration ordered by Caesar and head back to the backwater of Nazareth to build a life together with this new child? What would it have been like to be the parents of the Son of God, and what kind of child was Jesus?
Our gospel lesson today is the only story we have of Jesus’ childhood in the entire Bible. That, in and of itself, is curious. It seems to be human nature to be interested in the childhood and youth of great people; we want to understand them as “real people,” to know how the characteristics that propelled them to greatness manifested themselves at an early age. Thus we get the story of George Washington’s integrity and honesty as a child cutting down the cherry tree with his hatchet but, when asked if he knew anything about the event, solemnly declaring to his father, “I cannot tell a lie, Pa; I did it.” We learn of Abraham Lincoln’s humility and work ethic from the stories of his splitting logs during the day and staying up to do his homework at night by lantern light, learning sums by practicing them in charcoal on the back of a shovel.
The first century was no different. A standard element of both biographical history and mythological story-telling was telling tales of the hero’s childhood and adolescence which prefigured his or her future greatness. And, then as now, sometimes it was hard to separate the mythological from the historical. Jesus, of course, was a prime candidate for biographical speculation. What kind of child was the Son of God? When did he discover his own special powers and destiny, and how did he first use them? Did he turn water into lemonade at a friend’s birthday party? Did he walk across the water of his bathtub when he didn’t want to take a bath at night? Did he resurrect his pet goldfish when he accidentally killed it by pouring in too much fish food? Well, as far-fetched as those things sound, they’re just modern equivalents of some of the stories that floated around about Jesus’ childhood in the first century. Yet those stories were rejected as fanciful, mythological; Luke, ever the careful historian, includes only this one, and it in itself is a more sober version of a story that is recorded elsewhere.
This is not a fantastic story that prefigures the dramatic activities and power that Jesus will manifest in the future. It is a simple story that focuses on the human realities of what it describes. When you realize that Mary and Joseph’s assumption that Jesus was with relatives on the way back from Jerusalem was not unusual in a society with strong, extended kinship ties, it is easy to sympathize with them. He’s been missing a day before they even realize it; he’s been missing for three days before they discover him in the Temple. They’re working on little or no rest, little or no food, searching high and low throughout Jerusalem to find their son. They look in every place they think he might go, every place they would go if they were a twelve year-old country boy in the big city for the first time. And, as they search frantically, they begin to imagine all the things that could happen to him. The English translation you heard really doesn’t do justice to the emotional tenor of the narration; the verbs used to describe their search and their states of mind connote panic, anguish, and suffering. When they find him, they are not merely “astonished” but literally “out of their senses,” as any parent would be upon finding their missing child; the initial rush of thanksgiving quickly turns to outrage at the child who has put them through this without any apparent understanding of the consequences of his actions. “Why did you do this to us?!” Mary screams at him, “Do you have any idea what we’ve been through?!?” And Jesus responds, uttering his first words in Luke’s Gospel: “Why have you been looking for me? Don’t you know I have to attend to my Father’s business?”
If you’re an adolescent, remember being one, or have tried to parent one, then you know that one of the primary impulses of a teenager is to create distance from their parents, to claim their sense of independence, and to discover their own sense of identity. On the surface, Jesus sounds like any other adolescent who’s doing just that, seeming to be frustrated that his parents don’t understand him and won’t leave him alone to do what he feels he needs to do. From his perspective, he’s acting appropriately and even commendably. After all, he could have headed for a lot worse places in Jerusalem than the Temple, and he could be up to a lot worse things than sitting with the teachers of the Law and discussing how it applies to living one’s life as a good and faithful Jew! He feels like they should have known him well enough to know where he would go and what he would be doing. And, when confronted, he essentially utters the classic adolescent refrain to their parents: “You just don’t get it! You don’t understand me at all!” And he’s right. They don’t understand, even after he explains it to them with his first recorded words.
To be fair, they’re difficult words to understand. Literally. The most direct translation of the Greek would be something like, “Why have you been seeking for me? Have you not seen that it is necessary for me to be in the things of my father?” Okay, well, what things are those, exactly? There’s no specific reference. Some translations, including the one we heard this morning, argue that those “things” are the Temple precincts; after all, the main concern seems to be where he’s gone, so the issue must be about location. Thus, we get, “my father’s house.” But Jesus isn’t frustrated with Mary and Joseph for not knowing his location. They think the issue is his location, but the whole point is that they don’t understand the real issue. The real issue is their not understanding his destiny and his calling. Thus, the better translation is actually the one from the old King James Version: “to be about my Father’s business.” That’s what he’s discussing with the teachers of the Law: his Father’s business, what God intends for us and expects from us as it is written in the Law. Later, he will summarize the affairs of the Father in the words that we recall each Sunday: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Though Jesus shows unusual aptitude and insight in his discussions with the teachers, there is nothing miraculous here. The point is not that Jesus has some kind of supernatural understanding of the Law, but rather that he studies it with a passion and focus that is commendable for anyone searching for their identity and purpose. While his response to Mary and Joseph may come off as dismissive, perhaps even obnoxious, it is also possible to read it as real hurt and frustration on Jesus’ part, just as all adolescents are truly hurt and frustrated when they feel like their parents don’t “get” them. You know I need to do this, Jesus is saying; why are you getting in my way? I’m just trying to do what God wants from me.
It’s very difficult for any parent to let go of their child, to allow them to be the person God is calling them to be rather than the person we would like to call them to be. So this story should be some comfort for parents struggling with that. After all, Joseph and Mary had angels and shepherds and a star and wise men and the prophetic exclamations of Elizabeth and Simeon and even Mary herself, and they still have trouble with it; they still don’t understand. Oh, they know he is destined for greatness, that his fate is somehow tied up with the salvation of Israel and the Gentile nations, that he will be the source of both great hope and great division…but they don’t understand it. They don’t understand that he is not theirs to mold and shape as they will; they don’t understand that Jesus’ fundamental identity is his relationship to the Father, not to the family. They don’t understand that his purpose, his destiny, is to be about his Father’s business, and that means that they will lose him again in about twenty years on a trip to Jerusalem, and they will be out of their minds with anxiety and despair until they find him again three days later.
But is that so different from us? We’ve listened to stories about Jesus over and over again. Over the past few weeks, we’ve sung the carols and lit the candles, heard all those declarations and prophecies about Jesus once again. And yet it is very easy to find ourselves searching in the wrong places for him, misunderstanding his motives and his mission, confusing our motives with his. And it is very easy, then, to have some real anxiety when we don’t find him where we want him to be, expect him to be. So it is good for us, as we transition from the waiting for Jesus in Advent to the celebration of Jesus’ presence in Christmas, to remember that Jesus does not remain the little baby we love to love, love to sing about and rejoice in; he does not stay in the manger when we leave the manger behind. Jesus grows up, and quickly, taking up his calling to be about the Father’s business. The miracles and the teachings and the suffering and the dying and the rising again are all part of the Father’s business, all ways in which God, through Jesus begins to manifest the hope, love, joy, and peace that were promised in Advent, even (and especially) in the face of rejection, indifference, and evil itself. It’s probably not how we would like it. It’s probably not how we would have done things if we were able to control it. But that’s the whole point. Jesus calls us not to seek for him where we want him to be, expect him to be, but to follow him where he needs to go, inviting us to take up the Father’s business as our own, and trusting him to lead. And when we do so, we will never have to look for him, because he will already be there: guiding us and supporting us, wherever we may go.