During the season of Advent, we have been pondering the nature of journey. We’ve been on a journey of waiting together. Waiting for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. The celebration of Immanuel: God with us. That celebration has come in the form of Christmas and now here we are several days past that celebration and several days before we start the celebration of Epiphany, which begins with the visitation of the wise ones to a very young Jesus and his parents.
Today’s lectionary text offers us a story that jumps ahead a tiny bit in Jesus’ life. It is the only story in the gospels that speaks of Jesus during his childhood years between his birth and the beginning of his ministry. There are some other stories of Jesus’ childhood and growing up years in apocryphal texts, which are those texts that were not included in the selection of scriptures that were canonized in the Bible.
In the Bible, as we use it, this is the only text that tells us about Jesus as a child. And I say child intentionally here because the text clarifies that this story happens when Jesus is 12. In the Jewish tradition there is rite of passage honoring the transition from childhood to adulthood that happens at age 13. So in this text we find a Jesus on the cusp of adulthood, but still a child, and that child is on a journey with his parents, Mary and Joseph.
It is a journey they would take every year. The text states:
The parents of Jesus used to go every year to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover, and when Jesus was twelve, they went up for the celebration as was their custom.
This journey was part of the family tradition, because it was part of their religious communities’ tradition to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. Passover in Jerusalem was a large gathering of people traveling to the festival from many places. Often, groups of people who came from outside of Jerusalem would make the journey together – traveling to and from the celebrations in caravans for safety and community.
It is on the journey home, after the Passover celebration that we join this story. We are told that Jesus stays behind in Jerusalem and that Mary and Joseph are unaware that Jesus is not part of the caravan heading home. A lot of folks might initially wonder why Mary and Joseph do not know where Jesus is. How can they be a traveling home and not realize that their son isn’t with them?
It makes me think back to the days when my numerous in number extended family would gather – once together – the pack of us cousins would pile off and do our own thing for the duration of the time together – maybe setting up an epic 4 day game of Monopoly in the kitchen, or creating worlds of our own to explore in the attics or basements of whatever place we were gathered in. During these reunions, our parents would sort of take note of where we were, but for the most part, it was assumed that we were with the group – in the caravan – as it were.
So it’s not until late in the journey, after looking for him among their relatives and acquaintances, that Mary and Joseph realize that Jesus is not with the group. It is then that they turn back toward Jerusalem to search of him. And it isn’t until the third day that they find Jesus.
Well, by this point you can imagine that Mary and Joseph are in a state of panic. I mean I’ve lost sight of Simon while out shopping for just a few seconds and I start to panic because I can’t see where he’s at only to realize he’s ducked down to look at something out of my sightline yet right behind me. But if I couldn’t find him for 3 days? You’d better believe I’m going to be a bit – er – kerfuffled, to say the least. So, it is in this state that Mary and Joseph finally find Jesus, in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers listening to them and asking questions.
Mary and Joseph see him there and in their mixed up state of agitation, exhaustion, and relief from pent up anxiety, Mary says to him:
“Son why have you done this to us? You see that your father and I have been so worried, looking for you.”
“Why were you looking for me? Did you not know I had to be in my Abba’s House?”
Now there’s alot to theologize about in this moment – this: did you not know? – moment. Hidden within this is a sense and statement of identity. It is, on one hand, a claiming, by Jesus, of a calling to identify as a child of God.
“Did you not know I had to be in my Abba’s house?”
Jesus is claiming and naming his connection to God.
It is also a moment of wonderful child-like innocence. Jesus, from his experience and perspective, knows where he has been the past few days – he hasn’t been in trouble or in need – so what’s up with his parents being worried?
“Why were you looking for me?”
It has been clear, to Jesus, where he has been – what, Mom? I’ve been right here reading and learning this whole time! This moment reveals that young Jesus hasn’t yet developed the ability to see the situation from his parents’ perspective. Jesus, while gaining a sense of his identity, is still in the process of growing and becoming the person who will eventually engage the world around him with a perspective that will preach to, heal, and teach so many.
And yet, this young Jesus, while still growing and becoming, is already astounding people with his wisdom and insight. If we go back in the text for a moment we find that when Mary and Joseph finally come upon Jesus in the temple, he’s sitting in the midst of the teachers listening to them and asking them questions. It goes on to say that:
All who heard Jesus were amazed at his understanding and his answers.
Here is Jesus exploring with and learning from the teachers in the temple. He is nurturing his own faith journey. He is growing in understanding of the traditions of his religious community. And he is displaying, not only a large capacity for deep understanding of those scriptures and traditions, but also rich wisdom that is innately his own. Both of these characteristics astound the people who interact with him at the temple, in part because he is still underage. How often do we too underestimate the capacity and wisdom of children around us? When we finally stop and make space to hear and experience what is being offered by them, it can be pretty amazing.
We understand children to be students, to be learners of new things. That is an essential part of childhood – to grow, learn, and become. As we grow older, we can sometimes dangerously forget that growing, learning, and becoming is critical in every stage of human life. And that is one of the lovely things I see in this scripture text. I see Jesus, still a child, already teaching those around him, and us now, the importance of engaging in the acts of listening, questioning, learning, sharing, and testing one’s own insights and understandings with the gathered community.
This is a reminder of our human capacity for nurture. We are created to be always growing, learning, and becoming. And not just in childhood, but in all stages of life. We, like Jesus, have a nature for nurture. To be nurtured, ourselves, as we grow and become and to be nurturers of those around us who are also on a journey of growing and becoming. We have the both/and capacity to offer and receive: care and counsel, to be listeners and speakers, to be learners and teachers, to be seekers and providers.
Nurture happens in every arena of our lives. In this space, the church, one of the primary areas we nurture is our spirits. We do this by gathering for worship, by sharing our joys and concerns with each other and carrying the good and the hard with and for each other, we listen together, we sing together, we are silent together, we share art, poems, and stories, and we read and explore scripture with one another. All of these practices tend to our spirits and in the tending of our spirits we are grounding and creating a rooted support system for the actions of our minds and bodies.
Jesus’ experience at the temple in Jerusalem doesn’t just remind us that we have the capacity for nurture, it also gives us insight into us how to go about the work of nurture. It starts with showing up. Jesus went to the temple – and yes, I realize that in this case, his showing up there meant that he disappeared from his parents. Yet, if we want to choose to be open to nurture, we must choose to show up in places and spaces that will offer nurture to us and let us offer nurture in return.
And even then, when we have shown up in places of possible nurture, nurture isn’t just poured out onto us, it requires time and engagement from us. Jesus was in the temple for 3 days before his parents found him – he sat and listened, and learned, and asked questions, and checked his understanding for days. Nurture is a process, it takes time.
In this text, Jesus is in the temple specifically nurturing his understanding of his religious community and the scripture texts that undergird it. His experience is not unlike the journey we too must take when trying to glean something meaningful out of a scripture text. We can read a scripture passage, hear it and take it in on the surface. Yet, if we hold or sit with that text for a period of time, letting it roll around within us, looking at it from different angles, and using it to inform the ways we look at the outside world, it starts to reveal itself in unexpected ways.
I am always surprised by what I experience when I sit with a scripture – and by that I mean – asking questions about it, doing research (even minimal) to understand it’s context, exploring other people’s insights into it through commentaries and reflections, or by simply reading and listening to it again and again [and if you are hesitant to sit with scripture this also can happen with ideas or poems – what I am getting at is the intention with which we pay attention to something]. When I sit with scripture for a period of time things inevitably come to the surface in my living that surprisingly relate to the themes of whatever it is I am offering attention to.
Scripture has often been called a living word, in part because of its capacity to nurture. It is something we can actively live with and when we do, when we invest in it, it starts to take root within us and actively engages us back. It becomes a lens through which we can see the world around us. A lens that transforms our thinking, encouraging and challenging us as we are about the human work of learning, growing, becoming. Over time, as we engage and sit with these ancient texts, which sometimes feel so removed and unrelatable, they can start showing up in our experiences with the world around us; making unexpected connections.
As connections are made, those scriptures, which perhaps, at first, seemed distant and less than inspiring, just might start to offer us glimpses of meaning, or encouragement, or hope. And those are moments of nurture whether we grasp deep meaning or only scratch the surface of encounter with it and continue to hold big questions. Nurture isn’t only about providing clarity and explicit meaning – it is also at work stretching us and inviting us to become more comfortable with ambiguity. Professor Ginger Barfield, of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary of Lenoir-Rhyne University, wrote in a commentary on this Luke text: “The Gospel has the power to break in and surprise without providing total clarity. Our efforts to de-mystify it are sometimes counterproductive.”
To linger in mystery can also be a holy space of connection and nurture. We see that lived out as the scripture passage from Luke continues. After Jesus explains to his parents that he had to be in his Abba’s house, the scripture says:
[Mary and Joseph] didn’t understand what he told them.
And the curious thing is, instead of going round and round with each other until there is clear understanding about the situation and some sort of meaningful resolution, the family goes home and shares life together as Jesus grows up.
This act by Jesus, Mary, and Joseph exemplifies another aspect of nurture: to choose to share life together through all the moments that it brings, moments of both meaning and mystery. To journey with each other and God as we all, young to older, continue growing, learning, and becoming.
We have been on a journey together in this season of Advent. May we continue to choose to journey together through the meaning and mystery that surrounds us each day, nurturing and being nurtured by each other in the presence of Immanuel, God with us.