The traditional belief of the Church is that the Jesus born at Bethlehem was both divine and human. Not part divine and part human, not some half-way-in-between hybrid. But fully 100 percent divine, as much God as God can be, and fully 100 percent human, as human as a human being can be.
Which means, if you think about it, that being human and being divine are not in competition with each other. People sometimes think that being spiritual means somehow transcending human flesh and blood, escaping our human bodies that get hungry and that get sick, that to get closer to God we must overcome our human hearts that are sometimes lonely and distracted and afraid. Perhaps the most radical claim of Christmas is that this is not true. Being fully human is perfectly compatible with being fully divine, so perhaps it is in embracing our humanity, the humanity that we share with Jesus, that we can best know God.
Because in Jesus, God was born into the human condition – all of it, we are told, except for sin. And so like all of us he was born helpless, needing someone to feed him, pooping his diaper and having to wait for someone to change it. That may not sound very divine, but in Jesus, God willingly takes on even these, shall we say, less glamorous parts of being human. And so Jesus, like all of us, slowly grows up. Learns a language, learns to feed and dress himself, learns to relate to his family, learns a religious and cultural tradition. Luke tells us that Jesus grew “in wisdom and years” – meaning he started out with less than he ended up with.
The Scriptures give us only one story about Jesus between his infancy and his baptism by John the Baptist, the story we read today. It is a story in which Jesus in many ways is simply a normal human child.
We are told Jesus regularly goes with his family to their religious observances; he goes with them to church. We still do this today. As Jesus gets older, he starts to get a life of his own, and to give his parents heartburn in the process. Normal. Jesus’s parents are worried to death when they lose him and can’t find him. Normal. When they find him, he’s in trouble. Understandable. (Although in the culture of those days, it was specifically the father’s job to discipline the children, especially in public. But Luke makes a point that it was Jesus’s mother who scolds him. I’m not sure what to make of that.) But the reaction of almost teenage Jesus to his parents’ anguish – which is to roll his eyes and say something incomprehensible – this is completely normal.
Other parts of this story are less than normal. To us, the idea that his parents could go a day’s travel and not notice Jesus was missing, today that would get you a call from Child Protective Services. Perhaps more surprising is that it took three days of looking for Jesus in Jerusalem before they thought to check the temple. I mean, if I had a kid who got lost in Orlando, it wouldn’t take me three days to think to look at Disney World. After the angels and the wise men and all that, it didn’t occur to them that maybe Jesus was in the temple? And when he talked about being in his Father’s house, they didn’t understand what he meant? It had only been twelve years, surely they must have remembered.
But Luke doesn’t seem to think any of these details are strange, so perhaps Luke is not trying to satisfy our curiosity about what it was like to grow up as a fully divine, fully human child. Perhaps Luke has another purpose in choosing this one story, out of all the possible stories Luke could have told from the first 30 years of the life of Jesus, as the one to pass on to us.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Luke chooses to tell us a story about a trip Jesus makes to Jerusalem for Passover. You know, the final trip Jesus makes to Jerusalem for Passover takes up almost two-thirds of Luke’s gospel. And as Luke tells us the story about the Passover when Jesus was 12, it’s interesting how many of the details that Luke chooses to include actually foreshadow the story about Passover 20 years later.
Then, when Jesus arrives at the temple, he cleanses it. “Take those things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house into a marketplace!” (Jn. 2:16). He was already calling it “my Father’s house” as a child. Later he will spend days in the Temple in discussion with the scribes and the teachers, maybe some of the same ones who had been there 20 years before. But they will no longer think of him as a cute, precocious, country kid, but as a dangerous threat.
After that last Passover, the story again will end with Jesus being found alive and well in Jerusalem – but again not until the third day, and not before much confusion and anxiety and grief.
And while Joseph and Mary headed home after one Passover and went a whole day’s journey thinking Jesus was with them when in fact he was not, after the final Passover two disciples headed off to their home in a town called Emmaus, and went a whole day’s journey telling a stranger how they thought Jesus had been lost to them forever, only to discover in the breaking of the bread that Jesus had been with them the whole time.
I think Luke tells us this story, not to give us an insight into the psychology of tween Jesus, but to show us what God was doing by becoming a human being for us. We think of this story as Jesus being lost and then found in the temple. And that’s easy to relate to. Losing a child, even for a moment, is one of the most frightening things that can happen to a parent. To say nothing of losing a child for three whole days, or of losing one entirely to death.
Mary says to Jesus: Didn’t you know we were beside ourselves with grief and anxiety looking for you? And Jesus says, Didn’t you know I had to be about my Father’s business? The rest of Luke’s gospel will make clear exactly what his Father’s business is. We will be reading from Luke most of the next year, but here’s a spoiler alert: His Father’s business is not running a temple. It’s going out and finding the lost sheep, welcoming the lost prodigal son, feeding the hungry, befriending the excluded, healing the sick, raising the dead.
Jesus responds to Mary: You think I was lost, and you had to search for me? That’s not what my Father’s business is about. You do not have to come here to the temple to find me. My Father’s business is that you are lost, and I have come to look for you. As good Lutherans we know: the good news is that we don’t have to do anything to find God, but that in Jesus God has found us. In the child Jesus God becomes weak and vulnerable for us, because we are far more weak and vulnerable than we care to admit – especially those of us who like to think of ourselves as responsible adults.
And this, perhaps, is the message of Christmas for us: that we do not have to go looking for God in a temple or in heaven, outside the ups and downs of our ordinary human lives. Instead, it is God who has come looking for us, exactly as the flawed and broken people that we are, by becoming one with us, by living with us as a human being, with everything that implies – including experiencing what it is to be lost, at least for three days. So that we, in our humanity, could be drawn into the very life of God.