January 3, 2021, The Snapshot, Luke 2:41-52 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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It’s always a fascinating thing to see a childhood photograph of someone you have only known as a full-grown adult – maybe your parent or your grandparent, or someone you met when they were older. It gives you a new and different perspective on that person, an intimate glimpse into a part of them you never knew. If you look at the person in the picture, you can recognize the grown-up person even in the baby roundness of the face– before the marks of age and the lines of care and laughter, before the greying hair, before all the alterations of time and experience had done their work – still, clearly, there is the person you know and love, but not yet quite themselves as you know them. And somehow, seeing them in that far off time and place, the time and place that formed them, it helps you to know and love them even better.
I have a picture that I love, of my Mom standing in front of their house, with her handsome French father, and her tiny Irish mother, and her many brothers. It would have been right in the middle of the Depression years, and everybody looks well-scrubbed but a little shabby. My mother must have been about 6 or 7 years old, and she is absolutely glaring into the camera. I have no idea why she was scowling in that picture, but I can recognize in that fierce little girl the ferocious determination that my Mom always had – the same determination that would hold our whole family together through many hard times.
In today’s reading, Luke gives us a rare snapshot of our Lord in his childhood. There are apocryphal gospels that offer a few strange and sometimes unpleasant fictional accounts of the boy Jesus, but with the exception of the Nativity accounts, this little story in Luke’s gospel is the only real glimpse we get in all the gospels of Jesus before his baptism and all-too-brief ministry as a grown man. Clearly Luke thought it was an important scene for us to see, and I want to take a close look at this picture today, to see what it tells us about who Jesus was and is, to see how this story helps us to know him better.
We see Jesus as a twelve year old boy, making the annual pilgrimage with his parents to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. By Jewish tradition, thirteen was the age when a boy would be considered a man. In particular, a boy of thirteen was considered responsible for his own obedience to the Law, similar to the age many young people in the Episcopal tradition are confirmed and accept the faith as their own, but taken much more seriously, I think, than we generally take it. But at twelve, a Jewish boy was still a child, and his parents were still held responsible for his obedience and for his adherence to the Law. That helps us understand better why Mary and Joseph reacted the way they did.
When we read about John the Baptist, which we have done during the Advent season, we find that he was very much a loner even in his youth, living much like the Old Testament prophets, solitary, out in the wilderness. But in this picture we see that Jesus’s childhood was very different. We see Jesus growing up as part of a close community of faithful Jews. The journey to Jerusalem was something they did every year, and they traveled among family and friends, so that when Mary and Joseph didn’t see Jesus, it was a whole day before they began to worry about him, assuming that he was with relatives, or with the other young people.
I find it wonderful that when God decided to take on our humanity and be born as a real person, he chose to grow up in the kind of close relationships most of us grew up in. Mary and Joseph assumed their son was off all day playing with his friends and cousins because that’s where a twelve year old boy would be. But this little story lets us see that in all his normal boy-ness Jesus was growing into himself. And there must have been so many other moments when Mary and Joseph were reminded that their son was not like any other child.
It took them three days to find Jesus, and if you are a parent you have some idea what a state of fear and grief and rage they would have been in when at long last they went into the Temple and saw Jesus sitting calmly, in serious conversation with the most respected men in Jerusalem, all unawares that he had caused his parents any anxiety at all. I feel like Luke must surely have toned down their reaction. “Child, why have you treated us like this?” they cried out. And here we learn something about the Son of God that is very hard to imagine. Jesus, the twelve-year-old Jesus, didn’t realize how utterly panicked his parents would have been. He didn’t realize that they couldn’t know what was so obvious and reasonable to him – didn’t they know that he would be in the house of his Father? Jesus the boy was lacking in understanding.
Paul later wrote this to the church in Philippi: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” When Paul tells us that our Lord emptied himself, letting go of the privilege and strength and glory of his God-ness, one of the things that means is that Jesus had to learn. He didn’t always understand. Jesus had to grow up, as any human child has to grow up. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that it is that very thing that makes Jesus a perfect and compassionate High Priest for us. “Although he was a son,” he writes, “Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered.”
Luke tells us this story so that we can see Jesus, our Savior and Lord, in the process of learning obedience, suffering the anger and disappointment of his parents, coming to an understanding he didn’t have before, and growing in his obedience to them. It is almost unthinkable that the God of the Universe would become a being so much like us in ignorance and weakness, that he would have to learn obedience, and not just be perfectly and effortlessly obedient right from the get-go. And yet, we see that he did, out of his great love for us, so that in truly sharing our humanity, we might also share his divine life. The writer to the Hebrews even tells us that Jesus had to fight against temptation just like we have to fight against temptation – but without ever giving in. Our Lord, who was fully God, grew up to be a man who was wise and compassionate and without sin, not because it was no big deal for him, but because he grew into his personhood. Jesus, our own Teacher, struggled against temptation, and he overcame. He emptied himself and was born a helpless infant, and he grew up, step by painful step, just as we all do.
And that tells us at least two very important things about ourselves as well. It tells us first of all that God never despises us for our ignorance or our weakness. He chose to know exactly what it’s like to have to learn, what it’s like to need to grow up, which we all know isn’t something that ends at age thirteen or any age. We keep needing to grow up, in our understanding, and in our abilities, and in our obedience, for as long as we are alive. The fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control – that doesn’t spring fully-formed from our heads or our hearts when we become Christians. It takes our whole lives for God to form that fruit in us. And he is patient with us, certainly more patient with us than we are with ourselves, because he knows what it’s like to be unfinished. Our God understands, from the inside, what it is to be a human being in the process of growing. That is one of the great mysteries of our faith.
And the other thing we learn, from this picture of our Lord as a boy, is that our errors and our ignorance and our shortcomings are not sin. We know that Jesus suffered everything that goes along with the human experience with one great exception – he was without sin, always. Sin is turning our backs on God by choosing not to love, and Jesus always chose love. Goodness knows we have all sinned in our own lives, many times over, choosing not to love, and every time we sin we need to repent and be healed and start again. But all too often we waste so much time and energy feeling guilt and shame for our failings that are not sin at all, but just the unfinished business of our growing up. When we are weak, when we make mistakes, when we lack understanding, when we have been hurt, when we suffer depression or anxiety, Jesus knows – he knows – that we need healing and growth, not condemnation. He knows, because he had to grow up, too.
Knowing in his heart that he belonged in the house of his heavenly Father, Luke tells us that Jesus chose to be obedient to his earthly mother and father. He chose to go back with them to Nazareth, learning obedience by submitting himself to them, even though they were normal, imperfect human beings. He wasn’t pretending to learn obedience, just going through the motions; even though he was truly God, he truly grew in obedience through the growing pains all human beings suffer. And we know that the Father was pleased by the obedience he saw in his Son, so that at his baptism he spoke from heaven in a voice that was heard by all, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”