A sermon written and preached by Debbie Buesing
And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (Luke 2:47)
In the long, 30-year gap between Jesus lying in the manger and Jesus stepping into the Jordan to be baptized, the gospels provide us only this view of a pre-adolescent Messiah. So it is natural for us to wonder – if you’ll pardon the old cliché – what did Jesus know, and when did he know it?
In one of my favorite modern or maybe post-modern takes on this question, in the novel Lamb, subtitled The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal*, the 12-year-old Jesus leaves this scene in the Temple still wrestling with his identity. His mother Mary reminds him, “When you were born, these three men showed up who seemed to understand something about you. Maybe they can help.” Jesus then spends the next 18 years traveling to Afghanistan, India, and China, in search of the Magi, who, one by one, ultimately come up short; and a resigned, grownup Jesus returns home to finish working out why he is here.
At the other end of the artistic and perhaps theological spectrum, I have a photograph of a stained-glass window in the 17th-century church of Saint-Eustache in Paris, showing a young Jesus sitting in the Temple on a cathedral-style throne that’s too big for him, looking every bit the medieval prince with his blonde hair in a bob, wearing a gold crown and brilliant brocade robe. At his feet, a tonsure-headed monk holds an open book, leaning in towards the boy and hanging on his every word.
There are scholars who posit that this strange little story arose in a very early Christian community that did not have access to the other narratives of Christ’s birth. So in the absence of heavenly angels and wild stars, they told of a Jesus born with innate knowledge, including his own status as Son of God. I don’t know what the real origin of the story is, but what I do know is that it contains some valuable wisdom about teenagers, parents, and the Church.
A few weeks ago I spent some time kicking this passage around with our high school youth and asked them how they pictured the whole scenario unfolding. Before we got into it, there were some things to clarify. It was incomprehensible to them, in this over-protective and over-scheduled age, that Mary and Joseph would not know where their son was. For those of us who are used to single-family road trips, it helps to know that entire villages walked together to Jerusalem. While the men walked apart from the women and children, a 12-year old boy, on the cusp of Jewish manhood, could easily float between groups, particularly a boy as bold and sociable as I imagine Jesus was.
When we tell this story to very small children, we typically frame it as “Jesus being lost but then found,” because when you are four or five years old, it is terrifying to think of being separated like that. But as our young people pointed out, it is not Jesus who was lost. He was exactly where he wanted to be.
With that established, then, how did they picture the scene in the Temple unfolding? Our high school group pictured a lively dialog, lots of give-and-take. (The text, in fact, refers to Jesus both asking and answering questions.) As one of our young people put it, “Here were men who had spent their whole lives thinking about God, studying about God. They probably had very strong opinions about God. But maybe, just maybe – Jesus offered them an insight that caused them to stop and reconsider what it was that they thought they knew.”
In other words – in the words of Luke’s Gospel – they were amazed. This is a word that goes beyond astonishment. It is that breathtaking moment of recognition that one is in the presence of something truly extraordinary, even holy. It is the way the Gospels describe frightened disciples on the Sea of Galilee, who exclaim, “Who is this, that the winds and seas obey him?” It is the word used to describe the crowds who witness Jesus’ acts of healing and his teaching with authority. It is a word that calls us to pay attention.
I asked our young people who it is that makes them feel that they are amazing. Not surprisingly they mentioned coaches and directors and a few teachers in their particular areas of interest. The mentors who help them discover their gifts and vocations, in the places they are drawn to, much like the 12-year-old messiah who was drawn to the Temple because that was where he knew he needed to be.
And HOW do these adults make you feel that you are amazing, I asked. The answer surprised me: “These are the ones who don’t flatter us. They tell us when we are not doing well and how to do it better.” It seems to me that there is a meeting at the intersection of honesty, respect, and kindness, and perhaps that is what the young Jesus found in that Temple as well.
And where are you in this story? Where are we, as church? For many years I included reflections on this passage whenever I did youth ministry training at churches in our diocese. For the most part, adults see themselves as Mary or Joseph, many of them remembering that same, heart-stopping moment when you realize that your child is missing. (My moment was at Disney World, probably as bad as Jerusalem at Passover.) Typically, just a few will see themselves in Jesus. These are the ones who haven’t forgotten being a curious and adventuresome and even headstrong teenager. But no one ever seems to remember those other characters in the story – the ones in the Temple. And so this is what I remind them (and myself):
As Church, it is our job to be the ones who are amazed. To listen when our young people are ready to give us their truth, and to have the grace to let everything we thought we knew about God be shaped by their wisdom. To be patient, because as one of our youth told me, “Sometimes we don’t answer your questions right away because we are still figuring it out,” and so we wait with them in that holy silence, because in all honesty, we are still figuring it out, too. To listen, to be present with, to be amazed, is not just the province of a few volunteers or youth ministers. The most significant factor in a young person’s choice to continue in a faith community is having had a positive relationship with one other adult in their congregation.
And what of their parents? Mary and Joseph searched, the story says, for three days before they got to the Temple. Perhaps they were too overwhelmed with anxiety to think through the implications of this messiah business. Or maybe with anger. (As our Deacon Bryan’s reading suggested, The Blessed Mother was in possession of the “Mom Voice,” and not afraid to use it.) But there are other echoes in this story. Those three days just might be a foreshadowing of another three days: surely Jesus’ parents’ despair at his disappearance hint at the disciples’ grief and terror after his death. His retort to his mother – that he needed to be here, not with them – is not so different from his admonition to Mary Magdalene in the garden: “do not hold onto me.” These are painful words to hear – and so as Church, we embrace the parents too, and reassure them that their sons and daughters are amazing, in those times when they are too close to the action to perceive it.
If I have a prayer for Saint Augustine’s, it is that this may always be a place where our young people can come,
And know that they are amazing.
*Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. Christopher Moore, 2002.