The Boy, Jesus
The Boy, Jesus
January 21, 2018
So, if we want to tell the story of someone whom we think changed the world, chances are that we will set up that story by carefully telling the story of their birth and childhood. Our start in life may not determine who we are. We can overcome the limitations. Indeed, the challenges that we faced and the character that we displayed by overcoming those challenges may make us an even more admirable adult. We love the athlete who had to scratch and claw for everything they got, the actor who suffered through wearing a hot dog costume on the corner before their big break came, and the person who was a victim of injustice who credentialed themselves and achieved and then eradicated that injustice later on. We like those moments when we think, in retrospect, “Knowing what we know now…that’s amazing!”
In the Bible, all four Gospels focus on the adult life of Jesus of Nazareth. People had heard different things about his ministry, about him as a healer and a preacher and a teacher. Everyone knew that he had been crucified. The word was that somehow he had risen from the dead and appeared to some. Some even thought he had been the Messiah. Each of the Gospels is an attempt to tell the story of Jesus in response to what folks knew and didn’t know, what they had missed and what they had misunderstood.
Only two of the four Gospels tell any stories of Jesus’ birth, infancy and childhood: Matthew and Luke. In Mark, the story begins with John the Baptist. In John, there is a deeply philosophical and theological statement about the “Word.” As I have suggested over the last few weeks, most of us have taken Matthew and Luke’s accounts and blended them into the familiar Christmas narrative where, in our imaginations, the wise men and the shepherds and their sheep all converge on Mary and Joseph and the baby on December 25th. This makes for a cute Christmas Pageant. However, it is not the truth that Matthew and Luke tell.
In Matthew, the story of Jesus’ birth and infancy is shaped by the Passover story that was at the core of Jewish tradition. The people are slaves in Egypt. God liberates them by sending Moses to Pharaoh’s court and by calling down plagues on Egypt. After the last plague—the death of the Egyptian’s first born sons, the people flee through the parted Red Sea into the wilderness. God has compassion on them and leads them into the Exodus.
In Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth and infancy, there are all these weird reversals of what the people knew in that story. Bethlehem, as the birth place of David, was a powerful location for Jesus’ birth. Both Gospels affirm that location. However, in Matthew, people who appear in the King’s court are not part of God’s chosen people, but foreigners. The King of the Jews, Herod, reacts with incredible paranoia to the suggestion that a new king has been born. Ultimately, the leader of God’s chosen people is the one who hunts down all the newborn children. In the end, the only safe place to go for this child who is God-incarnate is…in a terrible irony—Egypt, the very place from which the ancestors fled. God’s people have grown so corrupt that there land is not safe. Even when Joseph and Mary are given the “green light” to return to Israel, they still have to flee to the countryside and go nowhere near God’s holy city, Jerusalem, because Herod’s son has taken over.
Matthew doesn’t tell us this story to shed light on Jesus, himself. Rather, he wants to tell us how corrupt and awful the world was in which Jesus was born. There is a king. There is a temple. There are religious leaders and the remnants of a faith. However, everything was toxic before Jesus ever got here. When he did arrive, those who loved him had to run for their lives. Knowing this, Matthew implies, we shouldn’t be at all surprised years later at the conflict between Jesus and the authorities.
So, if you are Matthew and you want to tell the Gospel story to a Jewish audience you have to get their attention. He chooses to do this by invoking an ancient story—the Passover story. He masterfully tells Jesus story by making it eerily familiar and disorienting all at the same time. (If you’ve ever seen the very first “Planet of the Apes” film, there is that amazing moment when Charlton Heston sees the wreckage of the Statue of Liberty—that’s the feeling for Matthew’s audience.)
If you are Luke, you are writing to a different audience—the non-Jewish, Gentile world. You could try to tell me a story by weaving things that invoke significant moments in, say, French history but that won’t have power for me because I don’t know much French history. (Who am I kidding, though…I had to bone up on American history before I saw “Hamilton!”) Luke doesn’t choose to talk about what was going on in the world when Jesus was born. Instead, he offers us a handful of details which serve as foreshadowing for anyone who has heard Jesus’ story as an adult. So, he tells us about the shepherds visiting, and we think to ourselves, “That makes sense! I know he cared about common people!” He tells us about Joseph and Mary taking the infant to the temple, and we think, “Totally fits! That’s what common people do.” Every step along the way, Mary keeps “pondering things” that people say and do. She takes in Simeon’s words about the child breaking her heart and, again, we think, “My God, that had to be so true! I heard she was there when he was crucified!” So, if Matthew pulls his audience in by connecting to their shared national story, Luke pulls his audience in through foreshadowing what the people already know.
Our text for this morning is the culmination of that foreshadowing. When did Jesus and his disciples arrive in Jerusalem? They came during the Passover festival. When do Joseph and Mary and the twelve year old Jesus arrive in Jerusalem? During the Passover festival. There are crowds in both stories. Jesus is lost in both stories. In the story of the end of Jesus life, Jesus is “lost” for three days in the tomb and then “found” by the faithful women. In the childhood story, Jesus is “lost” for three days by his family and then found by them, not in an empty tomb but in the temple.
The central conflict in the story of the end of Jesus’ life is with the religious authorities. They are threatened by him. They try to trap him and get him to violate the law. They were there when John baptized him. They were there when he healed on the Sabbath and when he preached to the crowds. They were there on Palm Sunday and there when Judas betrayed him in the garden. They might have rationalized things as only mattering because no one wanted to bother the Romans or that the only reason he died was because the crowd wished it so. The thing was they wanted nothing more than to have him gone. It wasn’t so much a theological issue as it was a simple matter of holding onto power.
All of this makes Lukes story so interesting. What he tells us is the story of a boy who just meandered away from his family, which would have been easy to do in the crowds. Just about everyone has gotten lost in a large crowd, especially if we happen to be traveling in a large group to begin with. We realize that we haven’t seen our friends or family for a while but think, “Oh…they’re around here somewhere.” We haven’t seen our child for a little while but we think, “Oh…they’ll turn up.” Then that moment of panic sets in… at least that’s the impression we get about Joseph and Mary. They look high and low and can’t find Jesus.
The distinct impression Luke gives us is that Jesus never panicked for a minute. He has been at the temple all along—which he refers to as “His Father’s house.” “Duh…” he seems to say to his parents when they find him, “Where else would I be?” What 12 year old boy’s dream wouldn’t be to hang at church, right? For Luke, this is the first direct indication by Jesus to his parents that if they were pondering things in their hearts, well, they better start pondering harder!
What’s so interesting is that 21 years later, when the adult Jesus would return to Jerusalem in the final week of his life, it was in the temple that he would become his most outraged self. He sees the money changers and kicks over their tables. In one account, he grabs a whip and goes after them. We ought to recall his boyhood statement when we see his adult rage. Maybe that kind of anger is reserved for the moments in this life when something we love dearly is defiled… Maybe what we are seeing is a demonstration of love and a broken heart, not hate.
Of course, the other huge difference is the relationship between Jesus and the authorities. A gifted twelve year old isn’t really a threat to anyone, right. He’s just bright and insightful. He’s creative! His ideas might be a little “off” but, hey, that’s just a function of his youth, right? He’ll grow up and learn how the world works and sand down some of those sharp edges…right? What Luke tells us is that the authorities are amazed by him. (Interestingly, Luke tells us that even then, Jesus is still asking powerful questions. This would be who he was as an adult—a guy far more likely to answer a question with a question but exactly the question which would pull at the listener’s soul.)
There would come a day when Jesus would disappear from Nazareth and barely return again. There would come a day when Joseph and Mary’s would feel like they had lost their son to this ministry. Rather than a temple, Jesus would make his home in the sea of human suffering and needs and ask anyone who cared, “Where else would I be than with those who need me?” Inevitably, there was a collision waiting to happen when Jesus and the religious authorities would cross paths again, when he wasn’t cute anymore and they were no longer amazed.
Hearts would break. Questions would be asked. All would seem lost…until the most amazing truth was found.