Admirable Adolescent Angst – Luke 2:41-52
Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day's journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety." He said to them, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.
As I sat down to prepare the message for today I tried to think of a contemporary Christmas illustration that would compliment today’s gospel story of a young boy who gets separated from his family only to find himself in a situation surrounded by adults who come to respect his intellectual prowess.
Initially all I could come up with was the movie, Home Alone – the story of Kevin, a young boy who accidentally gets left at home while his large family goes on vacation. When thieves attempt to break into his home, he uses creative means to subdue them.
Then I thought of the first book in the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – the story of Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie, who journey to the magical realm of Narnia, where they grow go on adventures and become brave and noble men and women under the careful tutelage of the Christ-like Aslan.
When I couldn’t think of any other examples, I turned to trusty ‘ol Google and typed in “stories of children separated from parents.” I was presented with a listing of 54 million results, most of which addressed children affected by divorce.
I tried again, this time asking the search engine to remove the word “divorce” from the results. Top hits included “Shattered Life of Child Holocaust Survivors” and “Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation.”
My third attempt brought me results including stories of children torn from their families as a result of American slavery.
This ill-fated internet search actually helped me understand what unsettles me about today’s gospel story – it’s seeming improbability.
I am a product of modern American culture shaped by 24-hour news, fear of the stranger, parental judgment, societal prejudice, and, of course, internet searches. The thought of a young boy being separated from family for nearly a week and left to his own resources (Son of God or not) leads me to assumptions and conclusions that are unsettling and upsetting. It seems to me that in the real world these stories about lost children simply don’t have happy endings.
I didn’t always think this way. I remember walking out of the movie theatre after watching Home Alone with my mom and thinking that I, too, as a 9 year-old could take on a duo of bumbling robbers if they attacked my home.
I remember reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and not being surprised at all that the four children could be so mischievous, mistake-prone, and yet, ultimately victorious in the face of evil.
I used to not be surprised by the idea that a young Jesus could be separated from his parents and still manage to end up impressing a group of adults at church. Of course he could, he’s a kid! Kids like us can do anything!
But then I had children of my own. It’s not just that I fear my children are unable to protect themselves against evil; but it’s this pervasive thought that as a parent, it’s my job to keep them from getting lost and keep them from encountering evil at any cost.
The term “helicopter parent” is gaining traction in the parenting world. It’s the notion that parents today are guilty of going to great lengths to over-protect their children, manipulating situations in order to let their children get ahead, and taking extreme measures from keeping kids from facing adversity. Practices of over-reaching helicopter parents range from the parents who refuse to be more than a foot away from their children as they play on playground sets all the way to parents who are writing their child’s college admission essays.
Parents are stuck in this strange paradoxical world where we believe our children are exceptional, gifted beyond their peers, and destined for greatness we cannot even imagine; and yet we treat them as though they are more fragile as faerie wings–completely incapable of blazing their own path, making their own decisions, or overcoming mistakes.
The stories of kids setting out on their own and overcoming adversity are relegated to the works of fiction and film.
When I was a child I thought it was cool that Jesus made his way to the temple and acted like he belonged there. Now that I’m a parent, I think Mary and Joseph are complete buffoons and ought to be reported to child protective services for their incompetence and neglect, having lost track of their child for over three days!
I think the grace of the story is in the part of the story that makes us crinkle our nose: Jesus’ arrogance. Mary and Joseph find the boy and say, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” Or, in modern language it would be something like, “Boy, what were you thinking??!? How dare you treat us like that. Do you have any idea how scared we were and how disappointed we are in you?”
But Jesus replies, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?” Or, in modern language, “What’s your deal? Get off my back. I can do what I want. You’re not even my real dad!”
That may not sound like grace to you; but suppose it is. Some of you are blessed to have witnessed your children grow up and become incredible people. You’ve seen them blaze their own path, make mistakes, overcome adversity, have a positive impact on other people, and perhaps even become parents, themselves. These achievements were only possible because you stood back and trusted your children to dream their own dreams, make their own mistakes, and triumph over adversity.
What we have here in the story of Jesus in the temple is a major pivot point in the story of Christ – a milestone in the development of the adolescent Jesus as well as a foreshadowing of the pain that Jesus’ loved ones will feel the next time he enters Jerusalem, this time on the back of a donkey, with the truth of his crucifixion just around the corner.
This account of the adolescent Christ-child is included in scripture not to give us permission to neglect our children, but rather to honor their independence and the fact that God calls them, too, to a life of service in God’s name–a life of service that will lead them on adventures through joyful triumphs, devastating defeats, and amazing encounters.
Like the adolescent Christ-child, our children must set their own feet on the path of their choosing. We pray for them, we invest in them, we cherish them, we love them beyond words; but ultimately we let them go their own way. That may not sound like good news; but it is much more beautiful than keeping them tethered to an emotional leash that limits their ability to respond to God’s call. And in the end, our children are a gift from God, on loan to us, and more than capable of accomplishing great things in God’s name.