This is a sermon I gave on July 3, 2011 at Bethel Christian Reformed Church as a kick-off to our VBS Progam – this year’s theme is “Hometown Nazareth: Where Jesus Was a Kid”.
Sermon Text: Luke 2:39-52
Today’s story is the only story in the Bible about Jesus as a young boy.
Matthew and Luke are the only gospels that even record Jesus’ birth – Mark and John exclude it entirely. Even then, Matthew devotes only 23 verses to Jesus’ birth and Luke uses 52 verses, including the story we just heard.
This is not to suggest that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were lazy about details while writing their gospels. As any writer will tell you, editing is very important – if your introduction is too long, the audience will quickly lose interest. So they made the choice to omit stories of Jesus’ early life.
But, does this mean that Jesus’ childhood and young adult years are unimportant to the gospel story? The gospels describe 3 years of Jesus’ life, but what about the other 30 years? Don’t they matter? As someone who is 30, I am a bit sensitive to this – did my life story only really begin last year, even though who I am today is directly shaped by my experiences in the past 30 years?
Certainly the omission of Jesus’ childhood and young adult life were not for lack of information. Stories about Jesus would have been very easy to learn about – his mother was alive and available to share them. After all, we know that Mary “stored up all these things in her heart”; surely she would have been willing to share stories about Jesus’ life. However, the gospel writers decided that in order to best convey their message, it was necessary to focus on Jesus’ adult life – his ministry, death and resurrection.
This means that when we read the gospels, we get a fairly clear picture of what Jesus was like as an adult. But what about Jesus as a young man, a teenager, a boy? Does the lack of stories mean that Jesus’ early life is unimportant?
The lack of stories about Jesus’ early life is an invitation to wonder about what Jesus was like. Perhaps Matthew, Mark, Luke and John felt they could say more about who Jesus is – the one who is 100% God and 100% human – by leaving some stuff out. Perhaps the intent of the gospel writers in omitting stories about Jesus’ childhood was to create space for us to ponder the paradox of the incarnation. In other words, we are being called to use our God-given imaginations to ask questions about Jesus’ identity. In doing so, we become wrapped in the mystery of who Jesus is. Rather than being provided with mere facts about Jesus, we are invited into the story of Jesus’ life. Our questions give us the opportunity not simply to mine for information but to grow in our relationship with Jesus.
I’d like to invite any 12 year olds to the stage, or those who will be turning 12 this year to ask them some questions. [At this point, I invited the 12-year-olds form our congregation up to the front and asked them the following questions. As you can imagine, the answers were very apropos of that age group].
What is your favorite pastime?
Do you like school? What grade are you going into?
Who is your favorite teacher?
Do you like going to church?
What is your favorite thing about church?
What is your favorite food?
What is something that you are really good at doing?
Do you ever disagree with your parents?
What is a chore that you can’t stand doing?
This is what it is like to be 12 years old. Most of us here were 12 at one point in our lives, whether recently or long ago. Jesus was a twelve-year-old too. This raises some questions about Jesus’ childhood:
Did he suck his thumb? Did he ever cry?
What was his favorite game?
Was he ever bored or even fall asleep when he went to the synagogue?
What his least favorite food?
What was he afraid of?
Did he ever break a bone or chip a tooth? And if he did, did he heal himself?
Was he part of the “in-crowd”? Was he ever bullied?
Was he athletic, always picked first for games?
Was he know-it-all?
Did he ever struggle with learning?
Did Mary of Joseph ever have to ask him to do something more than once?
Did he ever have a crush on someone or have his heart broken?
Did he know the future? Did he know who he really was and what his life’s purpose was?
Was he a momma’s boy?
Was he good at carpentry? Did he ever hammer his thumb?
These questions make us squirm because they seem irreverent. But are they? As Christ-followers, we believe that Jesus is 100% God and 100% human. However, whenever we talk about Jesus the human, we become squeamish. Why? Do we have difficulty accepting that Jesus was a twelve year old boy since we all know what 12 year old boys can be like? Do we not fully accept Jesus’ humanity? Would we rather focus on his divinity as if this somehow maintains his holiness? And does this focus on Jesus’ divinity keep him at a safe and comfortable distance from the messiness of our own lives? I mean, how could Jesus possibly be human like us, when our lives seem so imperfect?
Furthermore, when we do ask questions about the humanity of Jesus, we typically default to the “God” answer – of course Jesus knew everything, he is God; of course he was a perfect kid, he is God; of course he was better at carpentry than Joseph; he is God, and so on.
However, in answering this way, we forget that Jesus is also 100% human. Jesus the second person of the Trinity does not trump Jesus the little boy. Jesus is equally human and equally divine; one does not override the other. The Bible is clear that Jesus is God and that Jesus knows what it means to be human precisely because he was human himself. This means we are allowed to ask questions about Jesus’ early life, but it also means that the question mark must always remain. In this way, the mystery of the incarnation, the mystery of what it means that Jesus is 100% God and 100% human, is always something that we can ponder as we strive to become more like him.
Moreover, in remembering that Jesus is totally human, we can take comfort knowing that Jesus understands what it is like to be human. He knows what it is like to be twelve years old. He knows what it is like to have fun playing, to have favorite and not-so-favorite food, to have an imagination, to wonder about the future, to have scraped knees and elbows, stomach aches, nightmares, to be frustrated with your parents, to wrestle with your identity, and to struggle with the things of life because he understands our weaknesses and was tempted in every way that we are. If anyone knows what it’s like to be human, it is Jesus.
And in the Bible’s one story of Jesus’ early life, we do get a picture of what Jesus the boy was like.
We know that he was a child of his time and place – a small-town Aramaic speaking boy who was brought up to learn his father’s trade, making farm equipment, such as plows and yokes.
We also know that Jesus was Jewish. This may sound strange, but we have to remember that Jesus was not a Christian – he was a devout Jew his entire life. He was circumcised according to custom and he and his parents observed the Jewish festivals. In fact, we know that Mary was very strong in her faith, not only because she was chosen to be Jesus’ mother, but also because in our story for today, she accompanied Joseph to Jerusalem for the Passover celebrations. During that time, only men were required to make the journey, so for Mary to join him on a trip that would take three days travel one way underlines her devotion.
We also know that according to first-century Jewish practice, young boys would begin religious instruction and at age twelve the instruction would become more intensive. In our story today, we see Jesus, already at age twelve, before beginning his intensive study, is already very knowledgeable about the Torah – he asks probing questions and provides insightful answers. We can try to easily account for this appealing to the “God” answer, but this doesn’t fully explain things. Indeed, like the religious teachers, we should be amazed, not because Jesus is God, but because a young boy was so passionate and knowledgeable about his faith. Jesus remained in the temple because he wanted to learn more and to grow in his relationship with God. Because he took his beliefs seriously, he asked questions and he explored the boundaries of tradition. It is this devotion that began to prepare him for his adult ministry.
We also know that Jesus could be a source of stress for his parents. Anyone who is a parent knows what it is like when you think your child is missing – 5 minutes of uncertainty can feel like an eternity. Can you image having your child missing for three days? May and Joseph were probably riding a rollercoaster of emotion – fear, anger, anxiety. And when they finally do find their son, he talks back to them. A bit of a disclaimer here – kids, I’m not suggesting that it is OK to talk back to your parents just because Jesus did. You can try that argument, but I don’t think it will work for you. I know that if my mom and dad were Jesus’ parents, he wouldn’t be able to sit down for the whole walk home (all three days of it) if he talked like that, son of God or not. And as devout Jews, I’m sure Mary and Joseph probably were well aware of the advice in Proverbs 13:24, and, like all human parents, I’m sure Mary and Joseph made mistakes in their parenting.
But we also know that, in spite of this incident, and presumably others like it growing up, Jesus was a good kid – our text specifically mentions that he was obedient and that he was well-liked. Does this mean that he never caused or got into trouble? Anyone who knows or has a twelve year old boy would agree that this is highly doubtful. Yes, as the book of Hebrews tells us, Jesus never sinned. But this doesn’t mean that he was the perfect child, always well-behaved with a halo around his head.
Moreover, our text for today says that Jesus grew in wisdom. Growth implies process and development. Growing up is a physical process – and yes, this means that Jesus went through puberty – but it also entails developing emotional, social, psychological, and spiritual maturity. In our story, it is clear that Jesus knows the Torah very well. But knowing the Torah would not be enough for his mission on earth. He would require wisdom. In the Bible, wisdom is not about “book smarts” or intelligence. Rather, wisdom is about how close you are to God and how well you follow God’s law. Wisdom is a skill to be learned and developed over time. It is a gift from God that requires nurturing and the willingness to put it into practice. Wisdom is one of the most important skills Jesus learned throughout the first 30 years of his life in preparation for his public ministry, which is probably why Luke mentions wisdom twice in our text.
We believe that Jesus is 100% human and 100% God. In order for him to understand what it means to be human, Jesus had to become human himself. Coming to earth as an adult wouldn’t have allowed him to do this. He needed to experience what we experience. He needed to grow up just like we grow up. By remembering that Jesus was once a boy, we see his humanity, and in seeing his humanity, we see his love for all people, a love so great that he became just like us in order to restore our relationship with God that we may become truly human and enjoy life with him the way it was meant to be. Amen.