Do you remember being twelve years old? Maybe that was a long time ago or maybe just a couple of years. If you can't remember exactly, think about somebody you know who's twelve: sixth grade or maybe seventh, the end of elementary school in some places or the beginning of middle school in New York City where I live. Twelve is an in-between time, not yet fully grown but no longer a little kid. In some countries twelve year olds are working full-time, picking through garbage dumps searching for copper wire or computer parts to sell, or pounding rocks into small pieces to make gravel, earning pennies a day for their families. In some parts of Africa, a girl who's twelve now heads her household caring for younger siblings after their parents have died. In far too many countries, a boy who's twelve is carrying a rifle as part of a rebel army he probably didn't choose to join.
Do you know somebody who's twelve? Imagine. Do you see that boy over there who desperately wants to be taller? Does he feel left out because he doesn't like sports? Or that boy over there with the IPod in his ears? What is he thinking about as he moves to the rhythm of the music? What about that girl, the one whose makeup is so heavy you can't really guess her age? Has she already been pressured to have sex with an older boy? Or the girl sitting not far away-are her parents pushing her to take advanced placement classes so she'll get into a good college when she all she really wants to do is to be twelve?
Twelve is an in-between time. When Jesus was twelve, he and his parents went to Jerusalem as they did every year for the festival of Passover. I suppose you might be thinking that twelve is one of those special Bible numbers. Twelve sons of Jacob, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve disciples, twelve baskets of bread and fish left over on the hillside. Or, maybe, twelve was simply Jesus' age. He was twelve, an in-between time. Luke places the story there in between the dedication of the infant Jesus in the temple and Jesus' baptism as an adult in the River Jordan.
Luke is the only one who tells this story. He's the only gospel writer who includes anything at all about Jesus' childhood. Don't you wish we had more stories? Some Bible movies have imagined things, picturing Jesus working in the carpenter shop with Joseph or sitting on Mary's lap listening to stories. Some of the writings that didn't make it into the Bible tell stories of amazing events from Jesus' boyhood, bringing a dead bird back to life or punishing bad neighbors with miraculous feats. But Luke doesn't try to overwhelm us with magic or miracles. His story is far more ordinary, and he seems to know something about growing up.
Like lines on the door frame marking a child's growth, Luke marks Jesus' life by scenes in the temple. Earlier in this chapter Jesus was dedicated in the temple. It was then that aged Simeon held Jesus in his arms and said, "Lord, now let your servant go in peace…for my own eyes have seen your salvation." Between that day and age twelve we know nothing except this: Jesus lived with his parents and their lives were marked by the rhythms and rituals of Jewish life, so it was natural-even ordinary-that the next scene brings us again to the temple. In the rhythm of Jewish life, age twelve would be about the time of the rite of bar mitzvah, meaning "son of the law." No longer would others speak for Jesus-neither angels nor Simeon-now he would speak for himself. And so he did. There in the temple he listened and he asked questions. He spoke and gave answers that amazed his teachers.
And it was only natural-even ordinary-that his parents would wonder where in the world he was after a day's travel. Remember-Jesus is twelve. If you know anybody who's twelve, you won't be surprised that he didn't spend every minute with his parents. Nor is it hard to imagine that Mary and Joseph assumed that Jesus was with friends or relatives. They had often traveled with others from Nazareth to Jerusalem, and Jesus surely must have known many of those in the group. He was probably with his friends, they thought. He wasn't a toddler after all. Where are the twelve-year olds in your church? At Advent where I worship, most of them sit with their friends in the back pews, left-hand side of the sanctuary. If we had a balcony, they'd probably be sitting up there like I did when I was twelve. So it wasn't odd for Mary and Joseph to assume that Jesus was with people they knew. But when they hadn't seen him after a day's travel and nobody knew where he was, they did what was only natural. They returned to Jerusalem.
Who knows why it took them three days to find him. You'd think their first stop would have been the temple. Luke gives no explanation why it took so long. Though some may already be jumping ahead knowing that Jesus was gone for three days before the day of resurrection, but nobody knew that them. And his parents were beginning to panic. It's easy for us to say why they should have gone to the temple first. Don't they know who Jesus is? We hear this story with creeds and confessions in our heads, but Luke says that Jesus is a boy of twelve; and he is not yet known as "very God of very God," only as the son of his parents without any mention of the virgin birth. So the temple wasn't the first place Mary and Joseph thought of.
And when they found him, Jesus was hardly the picture of someone who honored his father and mother. "Why were you searching for me?" If you're a parent, you've heard something like that. "Why were you worried? I knew where I was." Well, you might argue that wasn't exactly what Jesus said. His words were stronger and stranger than that: "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" This was all before Jesus heard the voice from heaven, the voice that said, "You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased." But even if Jesus hadn't heard those words, his parents should have known who he was and where he would be. Mary heard Elizabeth greet her as "the mother of my Lord." The shepherds who came to see the baby in Bethlehem shared everything the angels had revealed to them-including news that this child was the Savior, Christ the Lord. Had Mary forgotten all of this after pondering these words in her heart?
Or were they only thinking that Jesus was twelve, thankful to see him again, no matter what he said to them-even if they didn't fully understand? Maybe Jesus himself didn't fully understand. Oh, I'm not proposing a debate about when Jesus knew who he was. Was it at the moment of birth, at baptism, in the wilderness, when he told the disciples that he would suffer and die and rise again-or on the day of resurrection? But I hope we can at least listen to Luke's story without imposing our doctrinal formulations, without making Jesus fully grown when he is only twelve. Jesus is growing into being who God sent him to be; steeped in Torah, he is drawn to his Father's house in a way he may not yet fully understand. Even after hearing God's words from heaven, Jesus had to live into what it meant to be God's Son. Indeed, that was how the devil tried to get to him in the wilderness. "If you are the Son of God, turn these stones to bread…If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple…." But Jesus, thoroughly Jewish, circumcised on the eighth day, dedicated in the temple, taught by his faithful parents, shaped by the rite of Passover, Jesus did not depend on some super human willpower. He depended on the sustaining power and presence of God and God's Word. Like my Jewish neighbors who touch the tiny metal case on the doorframe of their homes, Jesus reached up to touch an invisible mezuzah in the wilderness. There he found strength to counteract the devil's definition of who he should be: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one. You shall worship the Lord your God and God alone shall you serve."
That same word directed Jesus at every step, from the day he was twelve to the day he died. That same word and that abiding trust sustained Jesus against every temptation to let someone other than God define him. Even on the cross, he heard again the tempter's words now thrown at him by the crowd. "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, God's chosen one!" Though his hands were nailed down, Jesus reached up and touched words that he had probably learned as a child. "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." It was not so different from what he had said years before, "Do you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" Now he was. Now he is. Forever.
Please join me in prayer.
O God, of all ages, bless and keep all twelve year olds. Bless also those who are not yet twelve and those long past. Bless the questions of our children and the wisdom of our elders and help us this day see Jesus as your very human child growing daily into the fullness of your grace so that we too may grow in faith no matter how many years lie before us. Amen.