In the old days, the season of Advent leading up to Christmas was more serious. It was more like Lent, a time of preparation and instruction and repentance before people took the ultimate faith-plunge of baptism. So when Christmas finally arrived, the celebration and joy and relief began. That’s part of why Christmas season is 12 days long (it is, you know). Nowadays the celebration itself starts in, say, October, and the next day we move on toward New Year’s. But back then people needed time to enjoy it, starting on December 25th. And I think it’s also appropriate to spend 12 days because the idea of the incarnation deserves some time to be dwelt upon, and digested, and embraced.
After all, the idea is that that the fullness of God could be contained in a baby boy. That Jesus could be 100% God and 100% human, simultaneously. It doesn’t make rational sense and, literally, doesn’t add up. But it’s true, and in Luke 2 we have a story in verses 41-52 that is great for wrestling with it. This is the only piece of Scripture that describes Jesus’ growing up, and he appears on the scene as a 12-year-old. But before you read it, and forgetting if you already know what happens, I have a question for you: If you could put 12-year-old Jesus into any situation, what would it be and why?
I asked our congregation that question and people said they wanted to see Jesus in personal situations. Some kids were present who lived at a local children’s home, and they wanted to see how young Jesus would handle their setting. Another wanted to see how he would handle being bullied at the nearby middle school, or on Facebook. Others wanted to see young Jesus present in the Newtown, Connecticut community (this was just after the shooting). For the most part, people wanted to learn from his example, or see him go through their own experiences, or see his power at work to heal and to help. Good ideas.
I added that if I was 12 and being honest, I’d want to see Jesus out on the playground turning the water fountain into Mountain Dew. I’d want to see that when Jesus’ dog Fluffy gets accidentally runover by a car, he would run over and bring her back to life. I’d want to see Jesus’ best friend come down with the flu, and then Jesus go to his house, spit on him, and *SHAZAM* make him well. It’s all worth imagining. But keeping those fantasies in mind, where do we actually find the boy Christ?
Read Luke 2:41-52 here.
What we get is a 12-year-old who runs away to the Temple to talk to priests. Anybody a little disappointed? Maybe no wonder only Luke included this one in his gospel. What’s the significance of Jesus getting left behind for a few days? What does this episode do for us in terms of understanding God-in-the-flesh? Is it disappointing to only have this tiny record of Jesus’ early life, and to find him in such an uneventful scenario?
One or the other
It seems as though early Christians had similar wonderings. They wanted to know more about Jesus’ early life… they wanted to see boy Jesus saying/doing more. After all, the first few hundred years of the Church saw Christians struggling every single day. The Empire was in power, calling the Gospel a lie, calling Caesar the only savior on earth, and persecuting those who claimed Jesus as Lord. Christians were beaten and humiliated; their property could be taken or destroyed, their families sold into slavery, or killed. They felt like they were losing, so I bet they appreciated the Gospel stories that showed Jesus as powerful and victorious.
That’s why early writings like the Infancy gospel of Thomas give us a different picture of young Jesus. Mind you, these aren’t canonical writings, they’re not legit at all. They were written much after the fact, by unknowns, and they read like total fiction. But if we consider them the Christian “comic books” of the day, they showed us a boy Jesus who actually flexed his God muscles. Jesus would get revenge on town bullies, strike people dead, or bring them back to life, at will. He would create living things out of the dirt, and make people blind or deaf, with the flip of a wrist. He did what he wanted, and there were no rules. It was a 12-year-old some people enjoyed living vicariously through.
And it reveals that when it comes to Jesus, 100% God and 100% human, sometimes folks wanted to see a little more of the God side. A little more of the power and glamour and supernatural “justice.” By that standard, what we find in Luke 2:41-52 is just too mundane. The best we get is that Jesus is wowing the religious teachers with his know-how. Cool enough, child prodigy and all that, but is that it? He’s so, just, normal.
But, then again, some of us also think Jesus isn’t normal enough here. I mean, what kind of little boy ONLY rebels by staying at church too long? What kind of 12-year-old wants to sit around and talk Sunday school with the gray-beards? And the closing lines give us the idea that he was pretty much obedient from here on out. Is this the extent of Jesus’ being a normal human being? Can’t we have a kid that’s a little more relatable? I mean, if ever Jesus had an opportune time to make a mistake or two, to step out of line a little, to prove his humanity, couldn’t he have given us a decent story from childhood? Are we to believe he really was one of us? Some of us want to see a little more of the real, personal side.
Can’t have both?
All of this is the dilemma of Luke 2. Jesus is neither God enough nor human enough, for most of our liking. You might disagree. You might claim to love Jesus in his fullness, and not care much either way for how he acted as a 12-year-old. But I say that we all struggle, sometimes, with preferring one part of Jesus to the other, and it goes way past his childhood.
Just look at adult Jesus in the middle of his ministry. When he was healing and casting out evil and overall appeared to be God claiming victory on earth, there were crowds who loved it. But when he said things like, “I am the way and the truth and the life…” there were plenty who couldn’t believe what he was claiming about himself. When he was personally among the poor, forgiving sinners, and teaching love, lots of them put their stock in Jesus. But when he said that following him could mean suffering or total self-denial, even death, plenty of them bailed out.
Just look at the cross – some shouted up at a bleeding Jesus that it was time to step up as God, smite the Romans, take the earth and rule. But after the Resurrection there were others who thought the “good news” — that Jesus had defeated death and opened the door for all to eternal life -– was a little too miraculous to swallow.
Today, we do the same things. When we have an impossible decision to make, or struggle to face, or jam to get out of, we promise Jesus that if he’ll just show up in full force of Godly presence and power, we’ll follow him to the ends of the earth. In the face of death especially, we long for Jesus to flex those God muscles. But a moment later, when we want to get away with things we ought not do, and pretend like God can’t see it, we humanize Jesus and ask him to wait by the way-side. When we feel called by him to do difficult things, we ask Jesus to tone it down and be more relatable. When it comes to thinking about the rationality of the Resurrection, or explaining it to our friends, we’d prefer if Jesus would lean toward the human a little more. There are so many occasions when we demand Jesus to step up, or quiet down. Sometimes we need a supernatural Savior. But sometimes we’d rather just call on a good, normal, moral teacher. It’s awfully unfair to God. And terribly self-centered.
But thanks be to God that Jesus already knows good and well who he is, without our input. That is the excellent news of Luke 2:41-52. Even though it’s not the story many of us would have written for Jesus, it describes a boy who was also God, who knew his business and his Father’s business, and who wouldn’t be swayed from it. Even when it meant going against the ideas/assumptions of those closest to him, Jesus was rooted in his Father’s house above all. He couldn’t be kept from it. He wouldn’t be kept from his ministry to people of all kinds, from his teaching on the Kingdom of God, from his love and personality, from the cross, from walking out of the tomb, or from inviting us to believe, repent, and live eternal life. And he never will. He’s more man and more God than any of us can handle. With that in mind, how will we choose to proceed with him from here on out?