What’s that precocious kid go to do with us?
A sermon on Luke 2:41-52 by Nathan Nettleton, 28 December 1997
© LaughingBird.net

The childhood picture of Jesus’ development calls us to ensure that our relationship with God is our primary allegiance, our first responsibility and the foundation of our identity.


During this Christmas season, which continues until Friday, our worship revolves around the stories of Jesus’ origins. This man whose message continues to awaken such hope in so many hearts, and whose death opened the way to life for us - how did he come to be what he came to be? Where did he come from? What shaped him for the task he gave his life to?

The stories of Jesus origins and early development offered us in the scripture are rather short on details and clarity. In fact if you want precise biographical details you’re in trouble because even the little that is there pays such little heed to historical precision that doesn’t agree with itself.

Mark’s gospel, probably the first written, tells us nothing at all until Jesus appears to be baptized by John at around age thirty. John’s gospel, probably the last written, gives us the wonderful poetry that we read on Christmas day about “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” which clearly alludes to Jesus preexisting his own conception, but apart from the implication of birth in the line “the Word became flesh”, John gives no details of Jesus’ life on earth before his baptism either.

Matthew and Luke give us the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth, stories very familiar to us, especially at his time of year. But they are probably more a familiar to us in their combined form that we see in nativity plays than they are in their biblical form. If you actually read them separately you will find that, just like the resurrection stories, their authors were not very interested in precise details of chronology, geography or history. They are stories that attempt to say who Jesus is, not exactly what happened. They agree that Mary was a virgin and that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but that’s about all.

Matthew has Joseph and Mary living in a house in Bethlehem, the angel appears to Joseph not Mary, and after the wise men visit them at their house, they flee to Egypt and then several years later move to Nazareth for the first time. Matthew knows nothing of the census, the donkey, the stable, the manger or the shepherds.

Luke has them living in Nazareth, visiting Bethlehem for the census and giving birth in the stable. There are shepherds and angels, and eight days later Jesus is circumcised and named. Twenty eight days later they go to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice and the prophets Simeon and Anna recognize Jesus as the Messiah. And then they all return to their home in Nazareth. Luke knows nothing about the wise men, the slaughter of babies by Herod’s death squads or the flight to Egypt.

If you ask of these stories “Who is Jesus?” and “What does his appearance mean?” you will get very similar answers. If you ask “What are the precise historical details surrounding his birth?” you will get nothing but a headache.

And if you want details about his childhood, in fact about his whole life up until his baptism at age thirty, you won’t even get a headache. Three of the four gospels will give you absolutely nothing, and Luke gives just this one short story. A story of Jesus at the age of twelve, the one and only insight we get into his growing up years. The lectionary gives us this reading today as part of our Christmas cycle, a story to help us understand what made Jesus who he was.

It does give us some useful insights. It starts by telling us that every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Now this gives us an indication that they were a religious family. Then like now, there were Jews who took their religion seriously and there were those for whom it was just a peripheral thing. Those who made the annual three day hike to Jerusalem for the festival were clearly among the religious ones. This detail has added weight to the theory that Jesus’ family may have been associated with the Essenes, a particularly devout group in the northern regions, like Galilee - the group that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. The fact that they travelled in a group that was big enough for them to travel for a day without noticing that Jesus was missing supports this theory. They were part of a reasonably big close-knit religious community.

But the point of the story is not to tell us that - if Luke had wanted to tell us that Mary and Joseph were Essenes, he would have just told us. The point of the story is in its picture of Jesus’ development - his developing sense of identity, of responsibility and of priorities. And as such this story speaks to us of our sense of identity, of responsibility and of priorities. The other details we’ll have to make up.

Jesus is twelve years old. Another year and he’ll celebrate his Bar Mitzvah and be considered a man. But now he’s still considered a child.

Those of you who are parents can probably best understand Mary and Joseph’s panic when a day out of Jerusalem on the return to Nazareth after the festival, they discover that the boy is not with them. It’s the end of the day’s travel and as they move around the group, trying to find which group of kids, or which favourite aunty or uncle he’s with, no one seems to have seen him. Perhaps he’s with Aunt Miriam, in the hope of some of her favourite biccies. No. He’s probably with little Benyomin and Elias, he’s always up to some prank with those two. But no, they haven’t seen him since yesterday. Perhaps he’s with Abrahim, Joseph’s final year apprentice - of all the young men, Jesus often seemed to like being with Abrahim, ever since, as a first year, he’d first given the four year old Jesus a shoulder ride. But no, Abrahim was walking with his fiance, Misha, and they hadn’t seen Jesus either. Question by question it became increasingly apparent that no one had seen Jesus since they left Jerusalem.

There was nothing for it, but to rise early the next morning and travel the day’s journey back. But even in those day’s Jerusalem was a fair sized city, nothing like it is now, but big enough when you’re looking for one lost child. Where do you start looking. Well I guess they checked with the Jerusalem Central Police Station first, but they’d only had one report of a lost child and that was an eight year old girl who was already back with her parents.

Perhaps he’s still at the inn where they’d stayed. There was room at the inn this time. Jesus had been particularly impressed with the fountain pool at the front. Perhaps he was still there doing bombs into the pool with the innkeeper’s boy like he had been on Friday. Of course, that’s where he’d be, so that’s where they rush next. But no, neither the innkeeper or his son have seen Jesus in the last two days. Mary and Joseph wander around the surrounding streets, but there’s no sign of Jesus, and no one seems to have seen any unknown lone boys.

The day passes fruitlessly. The next morning Joseph has an idea. Perhaps he could have gone to visit his second cousins in East Jerusalem. They hadn’t visited them this year, but maybe Jesus had remembered them and tried to find his way there. It was an hour and half’s walk to find out that they hadn’t seen him at all and another day and a half was spent exhausting the possibilities of where he might have got lost trying to find his way there.

You can imagine the fears that are plaguing them now, and the sense of guilt that they’ve let their guard down and let something terrible happen to their boy.

On the third morning, Mary has an idea. Remember how much fun Jesus had had playing with a puppy belonging to one of the sheep traders in the temple forecourt. They’d had to drag him away in the end. He must have gone back to have another play and missed their departure. So off they hurried to the temple, but of course that was fruitless too, because most of the traders had only been there for the festival, and the one with the puppy was three days gone now.

But just as they felt their last hope fading, two Pharisee elders walked by. “Never heard such things from one so young,” one of them was saying. “And from a Galilean at that!” replied the other.

With a sudden surge of hope, they rushed into the inner court of the temple and sure enough it was him. Twelve year old Jesus, sitting among the teachers, listening to them, asking them questions and offering some fairly amazing answers of his own. And the teachers were so fascinated by the extraordinarily comprehensive religious education the boy had, and his depth of insight into some of the leading issues of debate, that none of them had thought to ask him did his mother know he was out.

You know what it’s like when you are so relieved that you don’t know what to do except get angry. Mary was probably a bit like that. All the tension of days of searching comes bursting out. “Jesus, how could you do this to us? Your dad and I have been tearing our hair out looking for you.”

“Why?” Jesus replies, “Where have you been searching? Didn’t you know that I must be about my father’s business?” The sentence Luke uses is completely ambiguous in the Greek. It could be translated “in my Father’s house,” or “about my father’s business,” or “after my father’s interests.” The ambiguity is probably deliberate.

Now it is quite possible to read too much into this answer. Some suggest that it shows that by age twelve, Jesus was already aware that God was his father and Joseph wasn’t. I think that’s asking a bit much of the text. As all of us know, it is quite possible to describe God as your father without raising paternity questions.

But there are things that it does show about Jesus’ development, that as people who are seeking to grow into increasing likeness to him, we will want to recognize and follow as patterns for us.

It does show that already Jesus identifies himself more in terms of his relationship with God than anything else. We talk a lot about establishing a personal sense of identity. In our culture it is most often tied to our work, our family or our dreams and goals. Who am I? I am a nurse, or I am a husband, or I am one who is going to leave all this and be a wine maker. Jesus is clearly subordinating all these claims on our identity to the claim of our relationship to God and to God’s business in the world. You are who you are in the presence of God, and the rest is peripheral.

And this does of course have big implications for what we give our allegiances to and where we see our responsibilities. If you would follow in the footsteps of the Jesus of this story, your primary allegiance is not to your family or to the company or to the church. Your primary allegiance is to God, and everything else is is evaluated in light of that. As I’m sure you’re aware, the toughest choices we face are not between right and wrong, but those that call us to choose between options that all represent worthy claims. Strong bonds of family; economic security; health and fitness; social acceptance; academic excellence; a loving marriage; - all these are perfectly worthy aims and desires, all can be very very good things. But there will be times when all of them can come into conflict with the claims God is making on your life, and you will have tough choices to make. And if you are following in the footsteps of the Jesus revealed in this story you will be searching for the ways that put your responsibilities as a servant of God first and foremost, no matter how worthy the alternatives are.

Such are the ways of wisdom. And if we are following them, we will be finding ourselves increasingly worthy of the little description that appears just before and again at the end of this story. Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and with people. May we be growing into that together. Amen.