Text: Luke 2:41-52 (Jesus as a youth in the Temple)
The four gospels tell us little about the childhood of Jesus. Mark, which was written first, starts with Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan and covers just the few months from that event to his crucifixion in Jerusalem at Passover. Matthew, the next one written, is a copy of Mark, although it adds a birth narrative in Bethlehem and a resurrection appearance in Galilee.
The final gospel, John, also begins with Jesus’ baptism and says nothing about his birth or childhood.
This leaves Luke. Like Matthew, Luke is a copy of Mark; and like Matthew, Luke adds a birth narrative in Bethlehem, although one that is different from Matthew’s. Luke also adds one scene from Jesus’ childhood, the story of the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple, which we just heard. This is the only story about the childhood of Jesus that appears in the Bible.
I chose to hear this story today because our theme is adolescence — that period in which we become more independent from our parents in word and deed.
In the story, Jesus and his parents have made an annual trek from Nazareth to Jerusalem for Passover, a journey of 150 km. After the Passover Festival, Mary and Joseph join a caravan to begin the long ride home. At the end of the first day, Jesus is missing. So, they return to Jerusalem and spend another few days looking for him. Finally, they find him in the Temple discussing issues with religious teachers.
His parents are upset. Mary says, “Son, why have you done this to us? Can’t you see that your father and I have been so worried, looking for you?” Eugene Petersen’s translation “The Message” puts it this way: “The religious teachers were all quite taken with Jesus, impressed with the sharpness of his answers. But his parents were not impressed; they were upset and hurt.”
Luke says that after this display of independence, Jesus returns to Nazareth and is obedient to his parents. But by the time of his adult ministry, his obedience has disappeared. As an adult, Jesus regularly flouts religious, civic, and familial rules.
He heals on the Sabbath and associates with women and other people whom the elite consider taboo. He allows himself to be called “King of the Jews,” which transgresses not only the authority of Herod and Pilate in Jerusalem but also the Emperor in Rome, and which leads to his execution.
When Jesus is told that his mother and brothers have come to see him, he replies: “Who are my mother and my brothers? . . . Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mark 3). In another story, Jesus says, “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters — yes, even one’s own self — can’t be my disciple. Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow me can’t be my disciple.” (Luke 14).
The story of Jesus in the Temple at age 12 shows a child who realizes that his hometown of Nazareth does not offer enough. It is about a boy who sees that his parents don’t have all the answers and that he has ideas that go beyond what they and even the religious elite in Jerusalem can offer.
In adulthood, Jesus creates a new type of family — a chosen group of pilgrims on a spiritual journey. The disciples support one another and resist religious and state authority in the name of love and justice. They are people like you and me, broken in various ways but also like us empowered by the Spirit to face mortality and find new life beyond moralism and oppression.
We owe our existence to family, church, and nation, which is why they have authority over us as children. But in adolescence, we try to define ourselves in opposition to the rules of family, church and nation. While life is blessed, it is far from perfect; and so, as teens we question established wisdom and struggle against moral rules and social ills like poverty and pollution.
Few of us are as bold in our rebellion as Jesus. Nevertheless, here we are today, nearly 2,000 years later, trying to follow Jesus, a rebel with a cause.
Being true to one’s ideals in a fallen world can lead to trouble. Loved ones may worry about us. Peers may ostracize us. The state may threaten us. And yet, Jesus says that the Way of the Cross is worth the trouble. He shows us that fearlessness is the best way to live a life of Love.
And so, we give thanks for adolescent rebellion and for adult lives that go beyond the rules handed to us by family, church and nation.
But how much power do we have to effect the change we want in the world?
This question reminds me of the Serenity Prayer, which has been made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step recovery movements. It says,
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Most of our ability to effect change is with family and friends. In the personal sphere, we can act with integrity and honesty instead of lying; listen and respond with compassion and kindness instead of being mean; and express our hopes and dreams instead of hiding our feelings and wishes.
However, some of our desire to effect change goes beyond the personal. Climate change is an example. Last week, the National Post reported on a study that criticized Canadian high school textbooks for suggesting students can do their part to stop climate change with personal behaviour — things like using clotheslines instead of automatic dryers and cloth bags instead of plastic ones.
The study pointed out — quite rightly, I believe — that such actions have a negligible effect on climate change. Instead, it suggested bolder actions like not eating meat, having fewer children, and not travelling by airplane. However, I believe that these suggestions also yield results that are negligible.
The study doesn’t come to grip with the facts that humanity grows by 200,000 people every day and that the world economy is predicated upon never-ending growth. In a global population that grows by 75 million each year and by one billion every 15 years, and in which a decline in population would trigger economic collapse, tackling climate change is not something for individuals. If there are solutions, they will be found at a macro level.
I am not opposed to recycling or cutting down on meat consumption; but not if they are undertaken to stop climate change. The latter requires something more comprehensive than the action of mere individuals.
This issue also provides an example of how difficult it can be to find the serenity to accept the things we cannot change and the courage to change the things we can.
In a healthy adolescence, we define ourselves with gratitude for the family, church and nation into which we have been born, and in opposition to parts of the status quo. The result will be attitudes and convictions that mix tradition with innovation.
The process of individuation is most dramatic when we are teenagers. But it continues into old age. At all stages of our lives, we test our abilities, refine our wills, and learn more about our potentials and limits. For this reason, the Serenity Prayer can be a touchstone for us from youth to old age.
Next week, as this summer series continue, I will move from individuation to social relationships. For now, I close with a variation on the Serenity Prayer that I came across this spring. It says:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change,
The courage to change the one I can,
And the wisdom to know that this one person is me!
Friends, both as a 12-year old in the Temple and as an adult in the shadow of the cross, Jesus models courage and authenticity. The path to which he calls us is not for the faint of heart. Happily, it is for adolescents of all ages who seek more courage and who rely on fellow pilgrims and God’s Grace for both personal and social change.
Thanks be to God. Amen.