We are presented here a story that is unique among the canonical Gospels, appearing only in the Gospel according to Luke. The introductory verses of the first chapter indicate that the author penned this gospel with the intention of sifting through the many "Jesus stories" circulating in the community that had been passed down from those who identified themselves as "eyewitnesses and servants of the word." The objective was to construct an "orderly account" for the faithful whom he identifies as "friends or lovers of God."
After providing a rich account of the events prefiguring and surrounding Jesus' conception and birth, Luke's Gospel focuses intently on the recurring roles of the City of Jerusalem, the Festival of the Passover, and the Jerusalem Temple Complex in Jesus' life story. It was at the Temple in Jerusalem that Simeon and Anna, prophesied over the baby Jesus that he would be "destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel" and that he would be integral to "the redemption of Israel."
The only window into Jesus' life that Luke provides between infancy and age 12 is a seeming aside that "the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him."[i]
This statement may seem cursory at first glance; however, it is actually laden with purpose and intention. While the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover was an annual ritual for Jesus and his family, this particular pilgrimage was an especially pivotal event in Jesus' process of maturation and formation. At the age of 12, Jesus was transitioning from childhood to adolescence; he was receiving more rigorous instruction in Jewish law and traditions, and he was moving from a dependent relationship with his parents to one marked by interdependence - and even flashes of radical independence! In essence, Jesus, the son of Mary and Joseph, the carpenter from Nazareth, was one step closer to actualizing his destiny as Jesus the rabbi, the rabble rouser, the faith healer, the messiah, the martyr, the Son of God and the Savior of the world.
It is at this paradigm-shifting moment - fortified by the strength, wisdom and favor of his formative years - that we find the adolescent Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple among the religious leaders and teachers of his day, while his parents are well on their way back home to Nazareth believing their gifted and precocious son to be somewhere holding court among the larger group of pilgrims in their caravan, not staying behind in the Jerusalem temple with the Jewish elite, the teachers and the leaders of their day.
While the gospel narrative doesn't give us much of a window into Jesus' childhood, I suspect that this was not the first of such experiences that Mary and Joseph had with their child of promise. Yes, he may have been the apple of their eyes, the one given to them by God, the one whose future was prophesied about even before birth, but I suspect that, even as a child, Jesus' parents knew that Jesus "marched to the beat of a different drum."
The 12-year-old Jesus in this narrative may not have violated the letter of the commandment to "honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you," but he certainly pushed the "spirit" of this divine command to its limits!
I submit that Mary and Joseph's experience with the idealistically independent and creatively curious Jesus in this thrilling childhood drama is really a grace-filled window into the disruptions and detours that are part and parcel of the process that we have come to know as "discernment." Discernment, in this context, is the process of wrestling with and seeking clarity on the driving and animating questions of our lives. Questions like - Who am I? What are my unique gifts and talents? What have I been called to do? What is my raison d'être, or reason for being?
These disruptions and detours along the path of discernment are particularly acute for those who are wrestling with what we in the Christian tradition have termed "a sense of call." Furthermore, while we traditionally associate processes of vocational and identity discernment with the formative periods of youth and young adulthood, the reality is that life - at every stage - is one big process of discernment filled with twists and turns, life-changing experiences, new revelations, detours, delays and switchbacks. This was true for Jesus and it remains true for each and every one of us on this journey called life.
The Rev. Howard Thurman, in his 1980 baccalaureate address to the graduating class of Spelman College titled The Sound of the Genuine, described discernment in this way:
There is something in every one of you that waits, listens for the genuine in yourself - and if you cannot hear it, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching and if you hear it and then do not follow it, it was better that you had never been born. You are the only you that has ever lived; your idiom is the only idiom of its kind in all the existences, and if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.
When I speak of disruptions and detours in the midst of discerning one's life calling, purpose, or sense of identity, I am not suggesting that they represent something negative or unfavorable that must be conquered or overcome. No, quite the contrary! The disruptions and detours to our well-ordered plans and schedules - like Jesus' extended stay in Jerusalem - serve as a reminder to us that whenever sparks of Divinity are attempting to break through the "ordinary-ness" of our lives - whether it's the conception and birth of Jesus or our own processes of being pushed to grapple with God's purpose for our lives - these experiences of the "inbreaking of the Spirit of God" are by their very nature disruptive of business as usual. Jesus cannot return to Nazareth the same way he came. Something happened to Jesus in Jerusalem. Something arrested his attention and took precedence over his preset schedule. I believe that something was the voice of God, the sound of the Genuine, calling Jesus to live into his divine destiny.
Few things are more disorienting and disruptive to the plans that we have for our lives - and the lives of our children and those that we care about - than coming to terms with the fact that, no matter the amount or quality of our formation, our preparation, or our education, our lives are never fully our own. As Christians called by God to lives of sacrifice and service, we all will find ourselves, at some point, either in the position of Jesus, compelled by the Spirit to stay behind in our own proverbial temples of preparation and inspiration as our loved ones make the long journey back home - or we may find ourselves in the position of Joseph and Mary, searching for our son or daughter, our spouse, or friend, or colleague, or parent who is being led by the Spirit of God to remain in the temple, or in the wilderness, or some other place of discernment - beyond our scheduled time for such experiences - while we have commenced our journey back to the ordinary and familiar rhythms of the places that we call home.
Luke's Gospel indicates that when Mary and Joseph realized that Jesus was not with them - after about a day's journey - they returned to Jerusalem [an unexpected, yet divinely directed detour!] where they found Jesus three days later "...in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions." After a bewildering exchange about the necessity of Jesus being in his "Father's house," the narrative indicates that Jesus returned with his parents to Nazareth where he was "obedient to them" and that "His mother treasured all these things in her heart."[ii]
Jesus may have returned with his parents to Jerusalem and I am sure that he was an obedient, diligent and respectful child as the scriptural record suggests; yet, the disruptive seeds of discernment that were planted in Jesus' heart, mind and soul during this brief, extended stay in Nazareth - seeds of spiritual strength and seeds of divine destiny and seeds of prophetic passion - would emerge in full maturity after many years of being nurtured back in Nazareth at the family dinner table or playing and enjoying life among friends and siblings and in his broader social and communal context as Jesus made the transition from boyhood to manhood.
Experiences of disruption and detour in the process of discerning one's sense of call and spiritual identity are not unique to Jesus. Neither are they the exclusive purview of women and men who may be called to ordained ministry in our congregations and pulpits. Each of us has been called by God to make a distinctive contribution with our lives and each of us has been endowed with unique gifts to use in service to these divine callings. With those gifts and callings also come disruptions and detours as the presence of God and the will of God makes itself known in our lives. When God shows up - whether with a persistent whisper or a booming shout; whether through a traumatic life experience or an unshakable feeling that there is something more that you are supposed to be doing with your life - the ordinary rhythms of life are disrupted, and our predictable paths become unpredictable detours filled with twists and turns.
The rendering of this story in the New Revised Standard Version of the text concludes with Jesus' interrogative declaration to his parents, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"[iii] Other versions read, "...Did you not know that I must be about my Father's business?"[iv] I submit to you, fellow seekers of God's purpose and travelers of the way of Jesus, that this ought to be our ultimate "North Star" as we navigate the disruptions, detours and delays in our own lives and the lives of those with whom we are in relationship: to be about the business of the One who formed us, the One who sustains us, and the One who gives our lives meaning and purpose. This is the mark that we ultimately press toward on our own journeys of discernment: to live like Jesus with divine intention and holy purpose.
I leave you today with a fitting prayer from twentieth century Trapist monk, mystic and sage Thomas Merton as recorded in the published volume Thoughts in Solitude.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself. And the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you and I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire, and I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
As we continue on our own journeys of discernment through life's disruptions, detours and delays, and as we navigate our own plan-changing and schedule-altering experiencing, let us make sure that, like Jesus, we are truly committed to being about our Father's business.
[iii] 2:49 NRSV
[iv] 2:49 KJV