the first first draft of this weekend's sermon...to be preached on Saturday and Sunday...comments invited!
“Need to Know”
Christmas 1: December 30/31 2006
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.
Once upon a time, there was a young girl. She was considered too young to start school—she had not reached that magic age by the magic deadline, and so was sent to another year of preschool, despite the fact that she had already begun to read. The next year rolled around, as years are wont to do, and the girl went to the Kindergarten class with the other girls and boys. A few delightful days full of games, stories, and play passed. Then a note went home with the girl. Her mother read the note, laughed, and said “I told you so.” The next week, there were tests…all kinds of tests. Tests with shapes, words, stories, puzzles. At the end of the tests, a very serious woman said to the mother, “I think your little girl here ought to be in second grade.” The mother laughed again, said “I told you so” again, and then said “no way.” First grade it was…and the girl was back with the kids she tried to begin school with the year before.
Jesus was only 12. He wouldn’t be a man, a student, an apprentice…an anything, really, until the next year. He had a whole year to wait until he could study with the teachers, ask questions, or do any learning outside his home or local synagogue. He certainly couldn’t work, and anything he might say would probably be automatically discounted because he was nothing but a child—and children were not worth much until they became productive—at 13.
Have you ever noticed how children often say things very matter-of-factly, as though it should be plainly obvious to all of us what is going on? Like the girl who, when asked what she was drawing a picture of, said “God.” To which the teacher responded with a mixture of patronizing and confusion, “but no one knows what God looks like.” The girl did not even look up from her drawing as she answered, “they will when I’m done!” How obvious, of course! I suspect that teacher walked away not really understanding. I suspect that my own parents and teachers walked away from that first week of school not really understanding the things I said and did, how to handle a 5 year old so precocious she got notes sent home that said “Teri tried to teach the class today…again.” And we read just now how Jesus’ parents didn’t understand…well, much of anything. This whole passage is filled with “they did not understand.”
The thing about parenting, I’m told, is that there’s no really good comprehensive “how-to” book. No “parenting for dummies” that actually covers all the bases for every child and every parent. There are always surprises, plot twists, comic relief, tragic moments. There’s always something that just wasn’t in the book. Jesus’ parents are no different, though their son was pretty different. Joseph and Mary had no big yellow book with black letters on the cover: “How to Parent the Messiah!” They learned about parenting the way everyone else does—by doing it. And Jesus, of course, learned about growing up and being a normal kid the way everyone else does—by doing it.
So here we have this suddenly precocious almost-teenager where just a few days ago we had a sweet little boy. Last week, in the manger, he wasn’t even crying, and now he’s sassing his mom. Last week there were angels singing and shepherds running, and now he’s wandering off in a crowd, staying out after curfew, not calling home, and sitting around with the grown-ups talking about religion and politics. But he’s only 12! What happened to Mary’s little momma’s boy?
I suspect this is a familiar feeling for many of you, as you’ve watched children grow up. Even I have felt it, watching my brother grow up and learn about life the hard way. I’ve felt it watching kids in my youth groups grow up. And they aren’t even my own kids! Yesterday they were crawling and today they’re driving. I admit I can’t understand how you all feel as you think about your kids becoming teenagers. And I can’t understand how Mary and Joseph felt when Jesus talked back to them in front of all those people, after they’d been sick with worry for four days.
Funnily enough, Jesus couldn’t figure out why they were so worried. And Mary and Joseph couldn’t understand why he didn’t get it. It’s a classic parent-teen conversation, with attitude. And all the people around were amazed that a mere child could understand so much of what the teachers taught. All over this story people are amazed, astonished, assuming, not knowing, and not understanding—and no one fits more of these words than Mary and Joseph, newly minted parents of an adolescent. Can’t you just picture them? They’ve been down in the city for a festival. They’re walking the 65 miles home afterwards with a throng of travelers, many of whom traveled down together as well. Family and friends, neighbors and coworkers, they all walked together. In the evening, Joseph says to Mary, “where’s that boy of yours?” Mary says, “umm, I looked after him while you took the lamb to be slaughtered. He’s your responsibility today! Why don’t you check on him?” They start with the family tents…no sign of their darling son. Then the neighbor’s tents…no sign of the kid there. Then his friends’ parents’ tents…no sign of the Son of God there either. Soon they’re saying to each other “no, he’s God’s Son, and he’s not even that cute…” as their frustration and anxiety mounts. They ask around, they even look in the camps of people they don’t know…he’s not there. So, back they go—fighting the crowd, the flow of traffic, the throng. Probably a hundred people told them they were going the wrong way as they walked back to Jerusalem, which was already a whole day away. Perhaps they were thinking that at least the crowd would have cleared out of the city by now, so he’ll be easier to spot…and what does he think he’s doing anyway?...he’s never misbehaved like this before…why did they ever agree to have kids?...soon Mary’s going through all the things she’s going to say to him when they find him…if they find him…Oh, God, what if they can’t find him?...that little scoundrel….kids these days!
Finally they go back to the Temple, which is finally starting to smell less like blood, and they start looking in the circles of teachers and students who ring the courtyard. In Middle Eastern culture, this is how religious schools work. Teachers find spots in the shade in the courtyard of a major place—in this case the Temple, in today’s Middle East, the mosque or the church—and the students gather around them. Everyone sits on the floor together while the teacher lectures and asks questions, and the students memorize, recite, and answer. It seems that Jesus has taken up residence in one of these circles…and that he is the one asking the questions. Hmm….how can this be? No one understands, least of all his parents, who finally find him sitting cross-legged on the white marble floor.
Have you ever noticed how often we use the words “understand” and “know” and other words like that? We like to know things. Well, at least I like to know things! Plus, we’re Presbyterians—education, intellect, understanding…that’s our thing. We like to know with our minds, to learn, to get our heads wrapped around things. We like to have words for everything—lots of words. That way we can be in control, right? Knowledge is power, after all.
But Jesus is one of those people we just can’t get our heads all the way around. We can’t know everything there is to know about God, we can’t understand Jesus, we can’t control or have power over God’s Spirit with our knowledge. It just doesn’t work that way! And, contrary to popular belief, we can’t ever really, fully, understand another person either. Most of us have enough on our plates just understanding ourselves, let alone someone else!
But that doesn’t stop us from trying, in either case. We have a very human desire to know things. Jesus apparently did too—otherwise he wouldn’t have stayed behind questioning the teachers in the Temple. Jesus’ parents wanted to know where he was, they wanted to know why he would do this thing, they wanted to know who he was and what all of that meant. But they couldn’t know—they couldn’t understand.
The thing is, even though they couldn’t understand, the reality is that they didn’t need to know. It wasn’t a necessity. Yes, they wanted to know all these things and probably more. I suspect most parents want to know all kinds of things. Kids too want to know all kinds of things. And there are about a zillion things I would love to know about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit and the church and the world and the brain and creation and pandas and people and…and…and…but I don’t need to know all those things in order to be in a relationship with God or with my neighbor. I don’t need to understand God. I don’t need to know everything, I just want to. And Jesus’ parents decided they didn’t need to know everything either. Instead, they just gathered up their son with hugs and tears and mild admonishments, and took him home. They loved him. Mary treasured these and many other things in her heart, as all mothers do. They didn’t need to know or understand, they just needed to be in a relationship with him, to treasure these things. Staying in the relationship is what mattered.
We don’t actually need to know everything, though we might want to. We don’t need to understand God—we can’t understand God! We can use all the words we want, but we can’t contain the Word. What we need is to be understood—by the only One who can understand. The only person in this story who is described as “understanding” is Jesus. Staying in the relationship with Jesus is what matters for us too, just like Jesus’ parents. They didn’t get it, but they loved one another. Even we can do that! He understands all things, including us, and including our relationship with him. And that is what makes all the difference.
Thanks be to God.