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December 31, 2017

“What Child Is This?”

Luke 2:41-52


A number years ago before our daughter Abby was born, as the Christmas ads on television were making their last desperate plea for you and me to rush out the door and spend money, my wife and son were captivated by a Walmart commercial. It was so bizarre that it has stuck in my head to this day. It depicted a family getting so excited about the great deals at Walmart, that as they got out of their car in the massive parking lot, they left their youngest child, an infant in a car seat, behind. Eventually, one of them rushes back to the car, and gets the child. I heard Sam say, “That’s just wrong! What kind of parents would do that?” I responded, a bit tongue in cheek, that Joseph and Mary did the same thing. Sam responded incredulously, “What?” I told him it was a story that is well known in the Bible.


Now of course the child in question wasn’t a baby, and he wasn’t left behind in a Walmart parking lot. He was the Messiah, and he was 12 years old, and somehow he ended up separated from the rest of his traveling band. You have to wonder, what must this event have been like for Joseph and Mary? Surely for years they had whispered to each other about what they had experienced when Jesus was born. They knew Jesus was more than special- that there were divine intentions placed upon their son. But we know almost nothing about Jesus’ childhood from Luke’s gospel or any other gospel for that matter. We have a couple of stories- We know he was presented at the temple on the eighth day of his birth for circumcision, and upon Mary’s time of purification, a 40 day period after the birth of a child, he was presented to the Lord, and a sacrifice of two doves was made upon his behalf. It was during this moment that the holy family encountered Simeon, who prophesied about Jesus, saying among other things that he had seen God’s salvation, that Jesus would be a light to the Gentiles, and that a sword would pierce Mary and Joseph’s soul.

And so four incidents- an announcement from an angel, a visit from a scruffy bunch of shepherds and later a group of magi with gifts that didn’t seem to appropriate for an infant, and this announcement from an old man at the temple appear to be from biblical accounts all Mary and Joseph had in regards to the spiritual identity of their son.

Nothing more is said anywhere about Jesus the toddler or the young child. No more dreams for Joseph, or announcements from an angel for Mary. We instead find ourselves fast forwarding to Jesus at the age of 12, the time when a young Jewish male child receives his bar mitzvah- The faith to which he was committed by his parents by the rite of circumcision is a now a faith in which he assumes the responsibilities.



Jesus and his family traveled to Jerusalem for the seven-day festival of Passover. A pilgrim was expected to stay at least two of those days. Along with Pentecost and Tabernacles, it was one of three festivals Jewish men were required to make each year to Jerusalem. As the family completed their reveling and worship, they packed up and began the journey home. Jesus decided he wanted to stay a little longer, and he went and stayed at the temple courts listening to the temple teachers and asking them questions. 

Though it may be difficult for us to comprehend leaving a child behind—(in my son’s own words- “That’s just wrong!”) and certainly in our day would justify neighbors calling child protective services—the image is cast of a large caravan of family, friends, and neighbors, all returning home together. The parents in this traveling community trusted both the child and the others in the pilgrimage. It is only a day later or about twenty miles down the road that they realized that Jesus was not among them.

I recently read the story of a girl who entered kindergarten. The mother took the child to school the first day and got her acclimated. Things seemed to be going well. At the end of the third day the mother received a call from the school asking where the child had been the last two days; the child had been in the classroom only the first day, and now, like Jesus she was missing from school. Naturally, the anxiety rate of the mother escalated since she had sent her daughter to school each day. Where in the world had she been during class? To make a long story short, it was discovered that the child had gone into another kindergarten class room those other two days.

However, the story does not end there. When the child was told that she was going to the wrong classroom, she reacted by claiming she was where she was supposed to be. She did not want to switch back. Consequently, she was allowed to remain in the classroom she had chosen.


Perhaps the parents of Jesus could relate this to story. Mary and Joseph upon discovering their twelve-year-old son was not among the other members of the family and friends who made up the caravan, returned to Jerusalem in search of him, likely in a frantic state of mind. After three days of searching, (Can you imagine how worried they must’ve become?) they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Though his parents had not known where he was, he did! He too was in the classroom he was supposed to be in.

This story is unique to the Gospel of Luke and is the only story in the Bible depicting the youth of Jesus. It is a rapid transition from the manger scene to Jesus at 12, and it echoes Jesus’ adulthood and his public ministry which would begin at around the age of 30. Until this moment, few others had spoken about Jesus- an angel and a prophet. Now it is the child makes his own voice known.


When Mary and Joseph found him, there was a stark contrast between the panic of the parents and the serenity of the child.  Mary voices her concern with the phrase, “Your father and I” while Jesus responds, “I’m in my father’s house.” That phrase on the lips of any mother- “Your father and I” typically signifies a fortified position that few children would dare to challenge. Yet the response of Jesus appears stated in a matter-of-fact manner. I wonder if at this moment, Joseph and Mary looked at each other, all of those prophecies rushing back to them at once when Jesus responded- “Why were you so worried? Did you not know that I would be at my Father’s house?”

Although they did not understand fully at the time, this was yet another clue, another one of those moments when they wondered, and Mary pondered this moment along with all of the others in her heart. Mothers have a way of doing that. They tend to remember the details that other witnesses may forget or may never even notice. Consider, for example, the birth narrative of Jesus concludes with the witness of the shepherds and Mary treasuring their words.


The boyhood of Jesus concludes with the epiphany of Jesus being both student and teacher and Mary treasuring these things. I wonder how many times she told this story over the years of her life? There are stories my mother tells about me and my sister that I have no recollection of- things that she or I said which were comforting or helpful in some way that I just don’t remember.  I think those are stories my Mom treasures and ponders in her heart as she tells them to others. 


This story gives us two things to ponder, to treasure in our hearts. First, it is a transition piece- Jesus moves a bit further from his earthly parents to his heavenly father. It is, in a sense Jesus’ proclamation of who he is, and of his divine parentage. Second, this text helps us to move from our adoration of a child of God in a manger to the greater mystery of the Son of God on the cross. This is a difficult transition for me. A number of years ago, there used to be one display of Christmas lights at a home when we lived in Fort Bragg which used to bother me. They had lights up all over their house, and there on the fence of the backyard was also a cross in lights, behind a manger scene in lights. I can remember when I would pass by it, feeling a desire to stay at the manger with the infant Jesus just a little bit longer, rather than focus upon the sacrifice he would make as an adult. As we approach the end of the Christmas season once again, I feel a desire to stay at the manger a little longer, to think about Baby Jesus, the miraculous Advent of God on earth, in our very midst, to stay and sing more Christmas hymns, leave my decorations up a bit longer.  But I know that Christ’s birth is only part of the story. I know his ministry and teachings lie ahead for us after we celebrate Epiphany and the arrival of the magi. I know that his suffering, death and resurrection are on the way. If we only sing Christmas hymns and stay at the manger our journey will be incomplete. Our faith will be missing so much.


Anne Weems speaks of this in her poem, “The Cross at the Manger

“If there is no cross at the .manger, there is no Christmas. If the Babe doesn’t become an adult, there is no Bethlehem star. If there is no commitment in us, there are no Wise men searching. If we offer no cup of cold water, there is no gold, frankincense, no myrrh

If there is no praising in God’s name, there are no angels singing.

If there is no spirit of alleluia, there are no shepherds watching. If there is no standing up, no speaking out, no risk, there is no Herod, no flight into Egypt. If there is no room at our inn, then Merry Christmas mocks the Christ child, and the Holy Family is just a holiday card, and God will loathe our feasts and festivals.



For if there is no reconciliation, we cannot call Christ the Prince of peace. If there is no goodwill towards others, it can be packed away in boxes for another year. If there is no forgiveness in us, there is no cause for celebration. If we cannot go now even unto Golgotha, there is no Christmas in us. If Christmas is not now, if Christ is not born into the everyday present, then what is all the noise about?”




And so, with some difficulty, we are called to be ready all too soon to rise from our kneeling places at the manger, and prepare for the faith journey that is yet to come. This story is the beginning of the transition from the manger to the cross, from God’s arrival to our redemption, from the miraculous birth to the miraculous rising from the grave. So, as we continue to celebrate Christ’s birth and sing hymns about that birth during this Christmastide, may we hold the picture of Christ upon the cross in our thoughts, and, like Mary, ponder all of these things in our hearts. Alleluia. Amen.

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