The Boy Jesus in the Temple & Christmas Surprises

My wife Allison and I both preached at Messiah Lutheran Church in Vancouver, Washington this past weekend, preaching on the gospel text from Luke 2:41-52. What follows is the majority of the text that I preached Saturday evening and Sunday morning. 

Grace, peace, and Christmas blessings and surprises to you!

Twelve Year Old Jesus in the Temple
Twelve Year Old Jesus in the Temple

I will let you in on a little secret, as someone who has been a seminarian this first weekend of Christmas has been a very common one for me to preach on at my home congregation and ones I served back in Minnesota. I am relieved in a way that this year’s gospel passage is about smarty pants, and just about a teenager Jesus in the Temple, and not about the death of the innocents.  I have had to preach on that text before. It’s an awfully hard one to preach on just a couple days into the twelve days of Christmas.

Today’s story though is one that we probably all hear a bit differently. If I were a twelve year old or a teenager I might think, “see, even Jesus had to shrug his shoulders at his parents.” “They worry too much. Why do they get so worked up?” Or, maybe Jesus was kind of like some kids at school who might even try and hide their awkward family from meeting their friends?

Or, maybe you are a teenager who is looking for some good come backs to your parents? It wouldn’t be too hard to read this gospel in the tone of a sarcastic teenager, would it?

If I were a parent, I’d probably be more empathetic to Mary and Joseph in this story. I imagine that they were panicked and stressed. “Where’s our son? What has happened to him?”

Maybe you have a story about a time that you thought you lost your kids or loved ones at the store? The mountain or the beach? Or, maybe you’re like my family? How many of you have been to Disneyland?

For the record, I did get permission to share this story, something important given that mine and Allison’s families are here today.

It was the one of the trips to Disneyland when we were younger. We had had a full day and were capping it off at the shops and stands along Main Street. My Grandma and Grandpa were with us, and my parents, brother, sister, and me. Well, we all thought that we were together anyway. After a couple minutes, where we had been in a few different smaller groups looking at things and window shopping, we came back together and then someone noticed. I think it was Mom who noticed and asked, “Where’s Tamara?”

A Disneyland Family Picture (from many years later, proving that we did in fact find Tamara)
A Disneyland Family Picture (from many years later, proving that we did in fact find Tamara)

My little sister was nowhere to be found. We all assumed that she was with someone else in the family. The mood instantly changed to one of panic, fear, and worry. Where’s Tamara, where could she be? We all started looking and retracing our steps, but in what felt like 30 seconds, there came this guy walking with our sister. Tamara, to our surprise and with great relief, was there, all fine and back with us.

We gave her a hug, and before we could turn around to thank the gentlemen who had found her, he was gone. Today I’m sure that was one of the Disney employees who does that daily. But at the time, I thought that he must have been some guardian angel. They’re not mutually exclusive. Maybe those people are every day angels?

I share this story, because it really happened. It was no one’s fault, just like it was no one’s fault that they assumed twelve year old Jesus was hanging out with someone else in the family on the trip home from Jerusalem.

The beauty of this passage for me is that it gives voice to the most human emotion, anxiety and worry. Mary flat out says, Child why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” Despite the good news of the promises of God, words of promise that Mary herself proclaims in the Magnificat, and the fact that the savior has been born for us, we all can and do get swept up by our fears, our worst case scenario thinking, and wondering what could go wrong next? Mary and Joseph, the holy family got caught up in these feelings and were surprised when they found Jesus. I find that reassuring. We’re not all that different in that way, are we?

Throughout the scriptures, it’s a common story to hear of people or things being lost and then surprisingly found- like the lost coin, lost sheep, and lost son.

In this story, where we see Jesus; as a 12 year old, who some might say was showing off in the temple even though he was fulfilling his calling… we also get the one glimpse in the gospels of Jesus between the time of his birth and his baptism and start of his formal ministry at age 30.

Today’s story, of a pre-teen twelve year old Jesus makes it possible to remember that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. We often focus on the divine, but miss the reality of Christ’s humanity. We fixate on his birth in a manger, and then on the cross, death and resurrection, but we sometimes overlook the fact that he lived. He breathed. He came and lived not just like us, but as one of us.

The big theological word that comes to mind is incarnation. It basically is, “The out-of-this-world notion that the eternal and infinite God came down to this earth in the finite and first-century Jesus of Nazareth.” (Rolf Jacobsen, Crazy Talk, 92). We believe that Jesus wasn’t just pretending to be a human. He was really born. I would imagine he also had to learn how to be some kind of potty trained, to walk, to talk, to eat… he had to learn to do everything that’s a basic necessity of life as a human being, just like we all did and do, even if those sorts of details aren’t in the Bible.

Before we could come around this table and remember Jesus’ body, he first had to grow into that humanly body. I suspect that it wasn’t always easy for Mary and Joseph, while Jesus was growing up. I suspect it wasn’t always easy for Jesus either. During those years of growth and development, naturally come the challenges of change. Maybe it’s just me, but it wasn’t always easy to grow into the late 20-something I am today. Puberty, a voice change, being a teenager, going away to school, moving across country, and back… that’s not easy stuff, and I doubt it was for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus as well.

That being said, that growing time is a holy and wonderful thing. If Jesus’ formal ministry didn’t start until age 30, 18 years later than this story we hear today, that means Jesus had 18 more years of learning, listening and being as Jesus grew up kind of anonymously, at least in the Biblical narrative.

Growing up takes time, and it’s all about change. And change is hard. Results may not be immediate, and they certainly are not what you might expect.

A pastor taking a selfie on Social Media Sunday
Some of the North County gathered worshiping body.

When this congregation sensed a call to serve North Clark County with a mission start, there was a sense of call, but no one could have predicted or expected how the Spirit might move and the congregation might grow. In its short five years, North County has been a ministry that has grown, slower than some might like, but full of surprises. Because of it, the congregation has grown. Messiah now has people worshiping regularly from as far north as Longview, and even to as far south as Salem. That’s a wonderful and unexpected surprise.

The story today is full of surprises in another way, which I think ultimately Mary and Joseph embrace once they move past their anxiety, and return to “treasuring these things in their heart.” This twelve year old Jesus was carrying on with a bunch of highly regarded elders and teachers. That would be like your child captivating the hearts and minds of the most respected professors, thinkers, and pastors in the world. You might hope for that for your children, but I wouldn’t think anyone would expect it. That would be a crazy surprise.

This story is just one of the many surprises we celebrate and remember during Christmas. Even though God promised a Savior, and the prophets like Isaiah proclaimed about the Messiah’s coming, it was still a surprise for God to be born into the world and be part of the world. It was a surprise for the Magi to see such a bright star shining in the night sky. And it’s a continuing surprise to discern how God through the incarnation turns our human conceptions and expectations on their head.

Today’s surprising story, of two anxious parents and a missing son, ends well as they are reunited, and returned together to Nazareth. Mary did treasure all these things in her heart, and as the gospel writer writes, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor”- though what exactly happened over those 18 years is a mystery, and we’ll fast forward through them in a couple weeks with Jesus’ baptism.

But for the rest of the 12 Days of Christmas take some time to be surprised and to live in the joy of the season. Today’s only the third day of Christmas after all, so there’s plenty of time to be surprised.

God’s at work in ways we can’t always recognize or understand. Sometimes this uncertainty can cause us to be anxious or afraid, just like Mary and Joseph in today’s story, or also like them, to not always understand what’s happening.

We have the benefit though of being able to remember that God has already done the hard stuff- coming into this world, living in this broken yet beautiful world, growing up through puberty and being a teenager, dying and then being resurrected to overcome death, suffering, and sin. All of these could be surprises, but maybe surprises are just God’s normal way of being?

Since I started by sharing a secret, here’s one more. I used to think that I liked having all the answers. I have learned though since moving to Minnesota and back here, being surprised is a lot more fun of a way to live.

Enjoy the surprises this Christmas season, and share that joy and wonder. It’s okay if you don’t have all the answers. No one here does. But I do I promise you this, because God promises this, that God is with you, and God is for you.

There will be surprises along the way. When you see them, treasure them in your heart and, take the time to wonder, “what might God be up to?” It’s probably something pretty cool, wonderful, and unexpected, the best kind of Christmas gift. Amen.

Image Credits: Boy Jesus in Temple.

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