Each year I enjoy pulling together a sermon series on the gospels that allows us to revisit Jesus’ story from a slightly different angle. A couple years ago our theme was “Dinners with Jesus,” for instance, since he had such a wide range of dinner companions and held fascinating conversations with each of them. Another year we looked specifically at the parables or “Stories Jesus Told.” One time we examined questions people asked about Jesus: “Who is this who healed you?” “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” and so on.
This year I thought it would be interesting to look at questions Jesus himself asks. Hence our new sermon series titled “Q&A (or questions and answers) with Jesus.”
I’ll be pulling each question from the gospel of Luke, and if you read straight through Luke, the passage we just heard this morning contains Jesus’ first two questions. Both are directed to his parents, Mary and Joseph, and both come on the heels of a rather frightening ordeal, from their perspective.
First: “why were you searching for me?” What do you mean why were they searching for you, Jesus? The whole family left Jerusalem together after the Passover festival, and sure, among tight knit communities it was probably common for parents to walk along talking to other parents, and for the kids to hang out with their friends, so maybe that’s how they all got separated. In such a caravan, Mary and Joseph might have assumed Jesus was either up ahead with an uncle or bringing up the rear with a cousin. But then the moment of panic sets in. Somehow, Jesus isn’t with the group. So they go racing back to Jerusalem and start looking all over the city trying to find their boy. If you’ve ever had a less than stellar parenting moment – and what parent hasn’t? – you can feel their pain here, right? If only we’d kept a closer eye on our son. If only we hadn’t walked so far before realizing he was gone. If only… And I can only imagine how worked up they’d be once they made it back to Jerusalem and still couldn’t find him anywhere. When they finally find him in the temple, Mary says “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been looking for you in great anxiety.” We’re talking years shaved off our lives, Jesus, and let’s not even get into the grey hairs we sprouted over the last three days. What on earth were you thinking?!
Now if you had never heard this story before, what kind of response might you have imagined at this point on Jesus’ part? I’m thinking a pretty big 12-year-old apology is in order! I’d like to see a bit of humility on Jesus’ part, along with maybe an expectation of some consequences for what he’s put his parents through.
But what do we read instead? Jesus has the audacity to answer his parents’ question with a question. “Why were you searching for me?” I’m sorry, what was that, young man? Did you just sass your mama? Is this some kind of pre-teen snarkiness coming from our Lord and Savior? “Why were you searching for me,” indeed! You’d better believe he knew exactly why they had been searching for him. He’d chosen to stay in the temple and talk theology with his elders, when he knew darn well that the rest of the family was packing up and heading out of town.
As it turns out, Luke is the only gospel in the Bible to share even this little glimpse of Jesus’ childhood with us. Matthew includes the story of Jesus’ birth, but there we only get as far as his flight to Egypt as a toddler with Mary and Joseph, when King Herod’s trying to kill him. After that, Matthew jumps all the way to Jesus’ baptism as an adult. And in John and Mark, we only ever read about the adult Jesus.
Interestingly, though, there are other ancient writings that do tackle the question of what Jesus was like as a kid. In fact, there’s a whole book called The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, written a couple of centuries later, which belongs to a popular genre of legends about the childhood years of Jesus.
We find some pretty wild stories of Jesus as a child in that Gospel of Thomas. I’ll share a few with you today, for fun –but remember, these stories are not in the Bible for a reason.
One day, “Jesus was playing on the roof of a house when one of the children playing with him fell off the roof and died. When the other children saw what had happened, they fled, leaving Jesus standing all by himself. The parents of the dead child came and accused Jesus: ‘You troublemaker, you’re the one who threw him down.’ Jesus responded, ‘I didn’t throw him down – he threw himself down. He wasn’t being careful and leaped down from the roof and died.’ Then Jesus himself leaped down from the roof and stood by the body of the child and shouted in a loud voice: ‘Zeno!’ – that was his name – ‘Get up and tell me: Did I push you?’ He got up immediately and said, ‘No, Lord, you didn’t push me, you raised me up.’ Those who saw this were astonished, and the child’s parents praised God for the miracle that had happened and worshiped Jesus.”
Here’s another. “Now Jesus’ father was a carpenter... He received an order from a rich man to make a bed for him. When one board of what is called the crossbeam turned out shorter than the other, and Joseph didn’t know what to do, the child Jesus said to his father, ‘Put the two boards down and line them up at one end.’ Joseph did as the child told him. Jesus stood at the other end and grabbed hold of the shorter board, and, by stretching it, made it the same length as the other. His father Joseph looked on and marveled, and he hugged and kissed the child, saying, ‘How fortunate I am that God has given this child to me.’” How much would any family of carpenters love to be able to stretch pieces of wood, right? Quite the gift!
There are other legends too – stories about little Jesus being able to form birds out of clay and make them fly… about him healing his brother James from a deadly snake bite. I guess it’s understandable that such legends developed. Why wouldn’t we want to imagine the young Jesus with the same kinds of miraculous abilities he demonstrated as an adult? But ultimately those who made final decisions about what would be included in our Bibles kept just the one story from Jesus’ childhood that we read today from the gospel of Luke. The others, it was agreed, were later legends rather than accurate accounts.
And after reading those more dramatic non-biblical stories, one can’t help but notice the “quiet reserve of Luke’s narrative.” Fred Craddock reminds us that the story of Jesus’ parents finding him in the temple “unfolds normally, free of miracles, fulfilled prophecies, and special revelations.” Luke seems primarily interested in showing that “the family of Jesus is a model of Jewish piety. At every point in Jesus’ life, the law of Moses has been kept: Jesus’ circumcision (2:21), Mary’s purification and Jesus’ dedication (2:22-40), and now the family’s annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover (2:41)." In some ways, what’s truly amazing about Jesus is that he, the Son of God, grew up as a regular Jewish kid, in a regular Jewish family, observing all the regular Jewish laws. Superman disguising himself as Clark Kent? That’s small potatoes. But the Son of God preparing for his bar mitzvah along with the rest of his peers – that’s really something.
At any rate, perhaps it’s actually the second of Jesus’ questions to his parents that’s the most telling. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” On one level, surely Mary and Joseph would be forgiven for being a little upset. Through gritted teeth I can imagine them replying: “No, Jesus, we did not know you were here, because if we knew you were here, we wouldn’t have been tearing all over the city for three days.” More than mere geography is at stake, though, in Jesus’ question, isn’t it? For “did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” points to Jesus’ dual identity. He’s Mary and Joseph’s boy, yes, but he’s also the Son of God. And as much as Mom and Dad would have loved to shield and protect him and to continue to offer him a normal life, he was ultimately going to be led in directions they could not have imagined, by another Father entirely. He would also exhibit a wisdom well beyond his years, as those teachers in the temple were already discovering.
So perhaps Jesus wasn’t sassing his mama, as I rather irreverently suggested earlier on. Perhaps Jesus was simply reminding his parents of the “good news of great joy” that had been announced to shepherds by angels at his birth, and to each of them as parents even before his birth. This child of theirs was none other than the Son of God.
The beauty of Luke’s gospel account is that this moment, this decision to be about God’s business, is shown to be more important than any other in Jesus’ childhood. So while it’s amusing to read stories from the Gospel of Thomas about clay birds coming to life and boards being stretched, they’re not really needed to show us how special Jesus was.
“Why were you searching for me?” he asks, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Maybe we didn’t know, Jesus, not when we’d only seen you as a babe in a manger. But your first two questions, as a 12-year-old, already have us wondering about your bigger story. With Mary and Joseph, we’ll be watching closely to see what comes next.