January 22nd, 2018

“We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize.”  (Hebrews 4:15)

Luke 2:41-52


My twelfth year

I’ve always loved middle schoolers. Teaching 11-12-13-year-olds in Confirmation is one of my favorite parts of my job. I’m not sure I ever connected my love for middle schoolers with my own experience in life at that age until yesterday.

My twelfth year began in Pakistan, where my parents were completing 18 years of missionary service. Along with my three older siblings, I lived away from home at boarding school six months out of the year. I was a bed wetter until age 15, and I remember the fear that one of the other boys in my class would tell all the girls in the sixth grade, including my girlfriend Becky, that Bobby still wet the bed.

That same spring I went to Kids Kamp for missionary kids for the first time, and there professed my faith publicly at the Friday night campfire.

Shortly after school ended in June, our whole family flew from Islamabad to Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Tokyo, where we boarded a cruise ship to San Francisco via Honolulu. We docked in Honolulu at 8 AM on a July morning, where my parents wanted to connect with friends from their college days, and a friend of that friend’s. They thought they would be gone an hour or two, and took my youngest brother, only four, with them. The four oldest children begged to stay at the beach. So my 17-year-old sister Elizabeth was left in charge of Doug (15), Jim (14) and me (11) on a hot summer day on Waikiki Beach with no money, no food, no sunscreen, and of course no cell phone. What’s more, none of us had even been in the U.S. for five years so we were incredibly naïve about everything. My parents didn’t return for seven hours, during which my mother felt increasingly deep concern, and shame, while we boys became ever hungrier and my sister suffered one of the worst sunburns of her life.

On our return to our home base in Portsmouth, Virginia, we started immediately attending Highland Baptist Church, where my aunt and uncle were members. Before that first summer passed, I had responded to an altar call and was baptized. That same summer, my older brother Doug was assaulted in an unprovoked attack during a racially charged era in Portsmouth. He’s lived all his life since with only one eye, and only partial vision in that eye. My grandfather died that August as well.

My life at age 11-12-13 included fear, naiveté, travel, cultural transition, grief, family crisis, awkwardness, and so much more. So I pay attention when our text tells us about Jesus at age 12. He is fully God and fully man, which means he was also fully kid.

My Father’s things

The Bible gives us one brief glimpse of Jesus at age 12. Only one, and only brief. We would love to know more about Jesus’ childhood, adolescence, and early adult years. In the absence of stories in the Bible, early Christians made up some rather fanciful tales. True to human nature, their stories represented what they would have done in their own childhood had they possessed Jesus’ supernatural nature and power.

In the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, for example, we find this story:

After this, [Jesus] again went through the village, and a child ran and knocked against his shoulder. Jesus was angered and said to him, ‘You shall not go further on your way,’ and immediately he fell down and died. But some, who saw what took place, said, ‘From where was this child born, since his every word is accomplished deed?’ And the parents of the dead child came to Joseph and blamed him and said, ‘Since you have such a child, you cannot dwell with us in the village; teach him to bless and not to curse. For he is killing our children.’

One of the evidences of the historical reliability of the Gospels in our New Testament is that we do not have such legends included. The Gospel writers almost exclusively focus on his public ministry, with stories they could verify.

In one of the stories that is “uniquely Luke,” we have Jesus’ only recorded words before the age of 30. This story has us craving more, but its inclusion in the Bible offers some critical insights while also leaving us with some unanswered questions.

41 Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. The Law of Moses (Exodus 23, Deuteronomy 16) required Jewish men go attend three annual festivals in Jerusalem – Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. In practice, most attended only Passover, which would have made the population of Jerusalem swell by hundreds of thousands for a week or more.

42 When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. It’s a mistake to consider this Jesus’ Bar Mitzvah, or anything close to it, since that practice wasn’t initiated as we know it for another thousand years, and in any case was for a boy of 13. However, twelve years old was clearly on the cusp of adulthood.

 43 After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. This sounds odd to us, but the best explanation seems to be that men and women traveled separately in these caravans, with younger children of both sexes staying close to the women and boys joining the men when they reached adolescence. With Jesus being in his ‘tween year, his mother apparently thought he was with Joseph, and Joseph thought he was with Mary. It’s not like they could have texted each other to double check. Jesus, apparently, was simply absorbed in the festivities, fascinated by the temple, and intrigued by the conversations.

 44 Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. In the evenings, the families would get back together, and we can only imagine Mary saying to Joseph, “I don’t see Jesus. Is he with his friends?” Joseph answers, “I thought he was with you.” There’s not a parent who can’t then identify with not only the terror but the shame of having lost your child. But this is no ordinary child. “How could I lose the Messiah?!” This was day 1.

Their first instinct was, I’m sure, to frantically search the entire caravan. Families traveled in large groups. Surely when they found his peers they would have discovered he was with them. They interview everyone they can, and remember, they also had younger children to look after. When they gave up the search, it was too late that night to head back to Jerusalem, so we presume they waited until the following morning to head back. Day 2 was the journey back to Jerusalem.

 46 After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Day 3 was their search for Jesus in Jerusalem. There were tent villages all around the city, and more than likely they started with where they had last seen him before they headed to the temple courts. The temple mount was the equivalent of about 20 American football fields, and if you’ve ever been to a major college or pro football field that size crowd is not a bad image for considering what it was like to look for Jesus.

Many rabbis would have used the opportunity for what we might call Bible study groups. Rabbis gathered around them circles of men, all of them seated (including the rabbis), during the give and take. Jesus was probably not in the same group day after day; he more likely went from group to group, participating in the give-and-take. At night, even with his parents nowhere around, Jesus would still have had many options for eating meals and sleeping in the tent villages.

 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. Once again, “amazed” is one of Luke’s favorite words about Jesus. We learn now that Jesus hasn’t only been listening and questioning, although questions can also demonstrate great understanding. He’s also been answering questions. I don’t think we need to imagine him challenging or teaching the scribes, correcting them as he would later in his public ministry. He’s still learning, absorbing, but also exhibiting unusual insight for a 12-year-old, engaging them on an adult level.

 48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” The word is different this time than the “amazed” used for the response of the crowd. This word means dumbfounded. We might say “freaked out.” It comes from a word that means “to strike out” – not like in baseball, but struck out of your senses. Every single mother and child can hear her exact tone. “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I were tormented while searching for you.” You know this feeling, right? You’re worried sick, you’re crying, you’re imagining the worst. But when you find the lost kid, your first words are not, “Oh, good, you’re OK,” with a warm embrace. Your first words are “Do you know how much pain you just put me through?”

49 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” So here it is. The only recorded words of Jesus in the Bible before his public ministry at age 30. We don’t know what his first words were as a toddler. We don’t have a record of his interactions with playmates. We don’t know what he shouted when involved in playground games. We don’t know what his exclamation was the first time he hit his thumb with his hammer. We do know what he said at age 12 in the temple when his parents freaked out. And we also know that Luke isn’t just interested in random details. He tells stories that matter, events that change lives.

He asks two questions. “Why were you searching for me?” seems like an odd question. I don’t hear disrespect in his voice, more like genuine puzzlement. He really is perplexed that they wouldn’t figure this out.

Let me translate the next question literally:  “Did y’all not know that it is crucial for me to be in the things of my Father?” Let’s focus on three words.

Dei is the Greek word translated “it is crucial” or “it is necessary.” The word is used about 100 times in the New Testament, 40% of them in Luke-Acts. Jesus is on a divine mission that must be completed.

“My Father” contrasts with what Mary had said: “Your father and I were looking for you.” He is reminding them of what they already know from the angel Gabriel’s announcement and the worship of shepherds and wise men. He is uniquely the Son of God, and his family will later understand that whenever there is a conflict between earthly loyalty and heavenly loyalty, heaven always wins.

The third critical word is one that’s not there. “House” is missing. If you’re into grammar, there’s a plural definite article (tois) with no noun. “Didn’t you know that I should be about the ________ of my Father.” Since he’s in the temple, most translators insert “house,” but it’s a plural idea. So “the affairs of my Father” or “the interests of my Father.” It’s not just about the place. It’s about the things that matter to the Father.

 50 But they did not understand what he was saying to them. You can’t really blame them, can you? Yes, they had all those supernatural revelations and signs twelve years earlier, but life had pretty much happened normally since then. Luke doesn’t seem to blame them for not understanding. He simply points it out.

51 Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. Here we have the self-aware Son of God consciously choosing submission. It’s one of the most remarkable statements in the Gospels. Be careful of saying more than what Luke says about what Jesus knew and when. Jesus knows his identity and mission, and yet he submits to earthly parents who know and are so much less. What a lesson for every person – not just every child – who is in relationship to people who seem more ignorant about whatever. Luke is laying the groundwork for what Jesus will later say about servants. Unless you’re willing to serve God and serve others for him, you can’t follow this Jesus. He submits, he yields.

 52 And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. You really have to pause on this verse. We’re not surprised that Jesus grew physically – in “stature.” We’re not too surprised that Jesus grew socially – in “favor with… man.” But Jesus also grew spiritually – “in favor with God.” How could he have had more favor with God than at the time of the incarnation? He also grew intellectually – in “wisdom.”  What did Jesus know and when did he know it? We don’t really know, do we? But he clearly didn’t know everything at first, or he wouldn’t have had to learn more.

Approach, engage, trust

I come to this text not only against the background of my own twelfth year, but with my current life clearly in focus. I’m keenly aware of the families in our church currently facing grief, cancer, surgery. In my early years at Corinth, this pastoral care fell mostly on me. Now we have a team, and it’s still a challenge. Just yesterday I cancelled three Confirmation appointments to visit Pastor Bill at Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, and before I returned home I learned about two other Corinth patients at Baptist.

Maybe you’re one of those families in crisis now, or maybe not. What does Luke 2:41-52 speak to all of us, from 12-year-olds to those facing life and death issues? Luke always tells stories with purpose and meaning. What does he want us to take away from this “uniquely Luke” passage?  What should be our response?

First, approach the throne. The writer of Hebrews surely had this and other very human stories about Jesus in mind when penning these words:  “We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrew 4:15-16).

I used to wonder as a kid whether Jesus wet the bed, since he faced everything we face. That was a child’s way of looking at this passage. It’s not that Jesus faced every specific temptation. He didn’t have disagreements with his spouse, didn’t grow old, didn’t have to decide how much to invest in the stock market. But the great comfort of his incarnation is that he knows what it’s like to be us. When we come to him, we may say, “Jesus, do you know what it’s like to be a kid?” Check. “Did your parents ever get really upset with you?” Check. “Did you have to delay gratification?” Check. “Were you ignored, rejected, misunderstood?” Check. “Did you have a family member or dear friend die?” Check. “Did you have to suffer intense pain? Do you know what it’s like to know you’re going to die soon?” Check. “Did you ever have too much to do, too many people pulling at you?” Check. Check. Check. He’s been there, and when we come to him we know we come to One who understands.

Second, engage the process. Paul wrote, “I am confident of this very thing, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). We resist process. We want completion. We don’t like to go through what we’re going through – the agony, the waiting, the wondering. Here in this passage we find Mary freaking out about her missing special child, hurrying, worrying, wondering, scolding, not understanding, then pondering… for years. She wouldn’t get him later on his ministry either, not right away.

Then there’s Jesus, engaging in his Father’s things, anxious to get started with grasping and sharing God’s word. That whole process is put on hold. He has to grow intellectually, physically, spiritually, socially. He’s not ready yet. It’s the process God uses to prepare Jesus. In his case the Son of God spent the better part of decades sawing and planing and hammering wood – doing nothing we would think of significance. Even he had to accept the process and wait.

Finally, trust the plan. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” This little word dei in Greek is powerful in Luke-Acts. Jesus must preach, must suffer, must heal, must move from place to place, must pray, must die. The early Christians must obey God rather than men, must go through trials, must witness. Paul must go to Rome, must be persecuted. This sense of divine compulsion and mission is central.

You can’t live without death. You can’t love without grief. You can’t feel without pain. The package deal includes those parts of life we resist. But it’s part of the plan. It’s part of how God is working his will in us. In 2001, Babbie Mason recorded this song:  “God is too wise to be mistaken, God is too good to be unkind. So when you don’t understand, when you don’t see his plan, when you can’t trace his hand, trust his heart.” Amen.

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