Scripture: Luke 2:41-52
This story that Luke tells of tweenage Jesus hitting it off with the rabbis in the Temple is the only real childhood story we have of Jesus in the Bible. We have a couple stories of Jesus as a baby, after he’s born. Matthew tells us that after the wise men come and visit, Mary and Joseph and Jesus flee to Egypt as refugees to escape the violence of King Herod. Luke tells us that Jesus’ parents brought him to the Temple for dedication soon after he was born, and Simeon and Anna, two people who had been waiting all their lives for news of the Messiah, were there to greet him. After that we have this story of Jesus at 12, and then all of a sudden he’s 30 and showing up to be baptized in the Jordan River and his ministry is off and running.
It’s natural for us to wonder what might have happened in those intervening 29 years, and Luke gives us this one little snapshot to get our imagination going.
If we look outside the Bible we find that other people were asking that question too, and coming up with some of their own answers. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which is one of those gospels that didn’t make the cut, is especially good for stories like this, and if you’ve heard me talk about some of these before, it’s because I love them. There’s one story when Jesus is five and he takes some clay and molds twelve sparrows. But it’s the Sabbath when he does this, so someone in the neighborhood goes to get Joseph to tell him what his son is up to, making stuff on the Sabbath. But when Joseph arrives Jesus claps his hands and makes the sparrows fly away so no one can prove anything.
In another story, Jesus is just happily playing outside, and he’s used his powers to form a stream of water into pools, and another neighborhood kid takes a stick and splashes the water out of one of these pools. So Jesus gets angry and makes his friend wither and die.
You can kind of tell why these stories were left out of the actual Bible as canonized. I really would like to think that the Christ child was born with a bit more natural compassion that. But why I love all of those stories is that what they depict is a kid, clearly different, clearly special, clearly starting to figure out what it means to be both divine and human, even if he doesn’t know it yet. Maybe we’d rather think that Jesus always knew, that he was a grown-up wise little man in a child’s body, but if we take the incarnation seriously, of course there would be a process of figuring out who he was, just like we all go through. He grows, inside and outside, like we do.
As far as childhood Jesus stories go, we can probably feel a lot more comfortable with Luke’s version of things, but I still see this aspect of Jesus starting to figure out who he is and what it means. In this story Jesus is twelve years old. And because we know Jesus mostly as an adult, we can tell that in this story he is acting very Jesusy. He’s hanging out in the Temple even after his parents leave. He’s found his natural place with the rabbis. He’s talking to them and debating scripture and asking them good questions and generally impressing everyone with his knowledge and his ideas. And, he already acknowledges an intimate relationship with the God he calls Father. Knowing Jesus as an adult, we can look back and nod knowingly.
But twelve year old Jesus probably doesn’t know all that yet. He probably doesn’t quite know yet who he is. He probably doesn’t know what he’s going to grow up to do, or all that it’s going to involve. Maybe he knows there’s something different about him, but he doesn’t know all that. What he knows, probably, at this point in his own story, is that he loves Scripture, that he wants to do the work of his Abba, and that the Temple is a place where he feels like he belongs when maybe he doesn’t feel like he belongs anywhere else. And maybe sometime years later, as a 32 year old in the midst of his ministry, Jesus had a moment where he looked back and thought of himself as a twelve-year-old getting into a heated scriptural debate with the priests, and thought, “Ah.”
Knowing yourself as an adult, or however old you are now, is there anything you can look back on from your childhood memories and see a glimpse of the adult, or older person, you were to become?
For example, my friend Lauren, who’s also a pastor, used to play church when she was little, instead of house or school like the normal kids. She would gather her stuffed animals, sing hymns to them, read to them out of her little children’s story Bible, and deliver a message. Looking back now, you could say, well, of course.
Or when my friend Patrick was growing up, he used to dress up in a coat and a Weather Channel hat, and videotape himself standing outside with a microphone giving a weather report. I met Patrick in college. He went on from there to get a graduate degree in broadcast meteorology, and now he works in Maryland programming a weather sphere to teach kids about earth science. Neither of them knew they were going to grow up and do these things, and maybe they didn’t even remember that they did them until they grew up and it was relevant.
Do you have some moment or moments from your past that let you look back and see so clearly the person you didn’t even know you were growing up to be? It doesn’t have to be career-related; it could be some aspect of your personality or an important hobby or another aspect of your life.
Discussion/Reflection Question #1:
Is there anything you did as a child that you can now look back on and recognize the person you would become?
We read this childhood story of Jesus during Christmas for a reason. Christmas is about incarnation: the belief that God loved us enough to take on skin and bone and muscle and come live life with us. And like I said, part of the incarnation is that Jesus grew like we grow.
God is with us, but not just in the form of a baby, and not just in the form of a grown itinerant rabbi. God is also with us as a playful, boundary-testing five year old, God is with us as a too-smart-for-his-own-good twelve year old, God is with us as a teenager struggling for independence, God is with us as a young adult beginning to make his way in the world. Jesus grew like we grow.
But the other side of that is, not only did Jesus grow like we grow—we should be growing like Jesus grew. The last line of today’s scripture sums up the rest of Jesus’ life, from age twelve to age 30. “And Jesus increased in years and in wisdom, and in divine and human favor.” We don’t get to hear anything more specific than that, but we can trust that he continued to grow much as any fully human person did. He met new people, he learned new things, he discerned through prayer and experience what his life was supposed to be about.
The years kind of take care of themselves. And human favor can be admittedly fickle. I don’t think growing in divine favor and growing in human favor necessarily go hand-in-hand, although it’s nice for Jesus that they did, up until the point where they didn’t and he went and got himself crucified.
But the story tells us Jesus also grew in divine favor, which is a little strange, perhaps, for someone who is himself divine. But what I take this to mean is he was going through these years figuring out what his divine purpose in life was, and how to be obedient to the will of his Abba, and how to stay connected to his Abba, maybe integrating those divine and human aspects of his identity—Jesus went off by himself and prayed a lot, after all. And maybe he was figuring out how to best express complete divine love in the limited context of a broken human reality.
Jesus had to grow like we grow, and we have to grow like he grew.
What I want you to discuss or spend some time reflecting on now is how, in your life, recently or not-so-recently, you’ve grown in divine and human favor, or especially in divine favor.
Discussion/Reflection Question #2:
What experience in your past do you now look back on as a time of personal or spiritual growth?
I want to remind you that this idea of growing in divine favor is key to Methodism. We call it sanctification. John Wesley looked at salvation not as a one-time event, but as a process that continues throughout our whole lives as we grow and look more and more like the lost image of God we were originally created to be.
John Wesley once had a conversation on just this subject with someone wonderfully named Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf. Zinzendorf believed that once you became a Christian, that was the end of the journey. Boom, sanctified. Accepting Christ alone is what made you holy, and you were never going to be more or less holy than that. But that didn’t make sense to Wesley. He said, “This then would mean that a father in Christ is not a whit more holy than a newborn babe?….The true believer grows daily in his love of God, doesn’t he?”
For Wesley, and for us as Methodists, our spiritual life reflects our physical life. When we are baptized, or when we repent of our sin, we are born again and made new. But that is only the beginning of the journey. We get to be a spiritual five-year-old, and a spiritual teenager, and a spiritual young adult, as we receive God’s grace and figure it out and mature in our faith. We don’t become perfectly loving, perfectly faithful people in an instant. But with God’s help over the course of our lives, we can certainly become more so.
It’s almost a new year and the new year is always a good time to think about how we need to grow and change, so my last question for you this morning is this:
Discussion/Reflection Question #3:
What are one or more ways you want to grow in the new year that would be pleasing to God?