Some of you may remember our Christmas Eve service last year. Maybe you were sitting toward the back and couldn’t see the young, uh, dancer who joined me up here for a scripture reading and Christmas sermon. Or maybe the memory isn’t burned into your memories quite as deeply as it is burned into mine. The quick version of the story is that for the final Scripture reading and the sermon my daughter, Karoline, joined me on the chancel to give her own interpretation of sharing the good news of Jesus’ birth with her candle in gun mode and her twirling on the top step. She also made quite a vocal exit when Phil swooped her under his arm and carried her on out.
The only thing I could think to say as it was happening was, “Even Jesus turned 3 one day!” And he did. The Scriptures say that “the child grew and became strong.” After his birth in Bethlehem, his circumcision on his 8th day, his dedication in the temple at Jerusalem a little while later, Jesus grew and became strong. He even turned 3 and, eventually, as we heard today, he even turned twelve.
There were so many options for how to interpret that line in the Scripture when Jesus answers Mary’s frantic question, “Child, why have you treated us like this?” Every parent wishes he had said it something like, “(Apologetically) Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But Luke has already given us enough information to know this couldn’t have possibly been the way Jesus answered the question. He has grown. He has become strong. He may even have wisdom, but he is still 12. It had to have been a little more like “(With LOTS of attitude) Duuuuhhhh. Why were you SEARCHING for me? Did you not KNOW that I must be in my Father’s house? (Complete with eyeroll)”
Or maybe I’m just projecting a little bit. We really don’t know much about Jesus between the ages of a few months and about 30 years. This is the only story of his adolescence that makes it into our biblical gospels. There are other gospels, mostly written several hundred years after the four we hold as scriptural, that contain all sorts of exciting stories about Jesus as a young boy.
Ann Rice used some of them from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in her 2005 novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. A five year-old Jesus forms 12 live birds out of the clay from the edge of stream. Later another child bangs Jesus on the shoulder while running through the village and with one sentence from the lips of the young Jesus, “You shall go no further on your way,” the child drops dead in the street. After his family is practically run out of town for his use of power, Jesus raises the young boy from the dead. Joseph, furious about Jesus’ public use of his power, in a total Darrin Stephens’ Bewitched move, pulls hard on Jesus’ ear and scolds him.
But if we go with what we have in Scripture we really don’t know what Jesus knows about who Jesus is. We don’t know if Mary told him about the angel who announced her pregnancy. We don’t know if Joseph confided in his son about the Lord speaking to him in a dream. We don’t know if he has heard about the star that marked his birth, the shepherds who worshiped him in manger, the visitors from foreign lands who came to worship him, the king who tried to kill him. We don’t know what Jesus knows about who Jesus really is. But we know that apparently from a pretty early age he knew where he belonged.
We know that for 12 years Jesus has come with his family to Jerusalem to the temple. For 12 years Jesus has come with his family to the Passover in Jerusalem to celebrate in the very place where God dwells with humanity. For 12 years they have come, every single year. We don’t know what he was told about who he was or where he came from or what the miraculous circumstances were around his birth, but we know that after 12 years of visiting that temple, he knew where he belonged. He knew that he was connected God, the one whose presence filled that temple.
In fact, his connection was so strong that he thought NOTHING of staying behind in that 12th year, not to see what Jerusalem was really all about. Not to run around with new friends he had made at the festival. Not to experience a little fredom from his parents and test out almost-adulthood in the big city. His connection to God was so strong that he stayed behind not to play, but to be a disciple in the temple, to learn from the teachers, to TEACH the teachers in the temple of God out of his deep and persistent connection to God.
There is a natural desire in adolescents to know who they are. There is a nature desire in them, a longing for identity, in which they try to answer the question “Who am I?” and they are bombarded daily with competing voices who try to answer that question for them. You are what you wear. You are what you listen to. You are what grades you get. You are what school you get into. You are what church you go to. You are what instrument you play, what sport you try, what club you join.
We see and lament that competition for our young people’s attention and focus, but I believe it isn’t just the young people who feel that same pressure to belong, who long for that sense of identity, for understanding about who they really are in the world. That longing, that wondering, that questioning, that quest for understanding often chases many of us into adulthood. Even years after the trials of adolescence have passed we can find ourselves plagued by the nagging question “Who am I?” We can find ourselves trapped by the same kinds of competing answers.
Have you ever tried to answer the question “Who am I?” Try it. Think about it right now. Jot down a list of things, if you would like, that answer the question “Who am I?” More often than not as adults our list starts with our jobs or our family relationships. I’m a pastor. I’m a mother. Or for others, I’m a teacher. I’m a retired nurse. I’m an engineer. I’m a grandfather. I’m a brother. Next on the list are often hobbies or the groups to which we belong. I’m a knitter. I’m a woodworker. I’m a Rotarian. I’m a biker. I’m a runner. Or maybe our interests – I like classical music. I read mysteries. I like action movies. More often than not, adults as often as adolescents find their lists are filled with the things they do and the relationships they have created.
Probably the hardest thing for all of us to learn, for children, adolescents, and adults alike, is that our identity is not tied to who are friends are, what we do for a living or for enjoyment, what we make, what we are striving to become, what labels others put on us. Our identity is not wrapped up in our interests, our paycheck, or our educational degrees. Our identity is not even best discovered by asking the question “Who am I?” That question is not helpful or life-giving because the task of answering the question lies solely on the one who is asking it. It is always left up to us to fill in the blank.
The question of our identity should really be “Whose am I?” It is the question that leads us to answer not who am I trying to be or what am I trying to do, not what does the world think I am worth, not who do my friends or my family or complete strangers think I should be. It is the question that leads us to answer, “To whom do I belong?”
It is a mystery what Jesus, at 12 years of age, knew about who he was born to be. It is a mystery what Jesus, at 12 years of age, knew about from where he had come, and what angels had helped announced his coming. It is a mystery what Jesus knew from his parents, his grandparents, his friends in the village of Nazareth. But what we do know is that by the age of 12 he was very intimately aware of to whom he belonged.
Mary and Joseph, understandably, became worried when after a day of traveling home to Nazareth they could not find their son, the one entrusted to them by God. Certainly their anxiety was heightened when it took them three days more to finally find him in Jerusalem, in the temple, sitting among the teachers, dwelling in the presence of God, listening and learning. But to Jesus, his location seemed a no-brainer. “Did you not know that I MUST be in my Father’s house?”
He didn’t say he had to be in God’s house. He didn’t say he had to be in the house of our ancestors’ god. He didn’t say he had to be in the house of Yahweh. He said he had to be in “MY Father’s house.” No matter what else he knew or didn’t know about who he was, how he was born, what he was on this earth to be and to do, Jesus knew to whom he belonged. He was at the temple to get a better understanding of the one to whom he belongs.
What if we all had even just a touch of the wisdom of that 12 year old boy? What if we all had the instinct of that adolescent Jesus? What if we all had the impulse to run to the one who holds us and gives us hope, who loves us and perfects our humanity, who gives us joy in our belonging, who brings peace to our lives and the world? What if we all knew to whom we really belong?
I’m not usually one who makes New Years’ resolutions. I’m not against them; I usually just don’t think of one until it seems too late, and then I never seem to remember what they were a few weeks later. I’m pretty sure that’s not the best way for me to make lasting positive changes in my life. But this year, I’m tempted. I’m tempted not to make a resolution to do something new or be something different or quit some negative habit. I’m tempted to make the resolution to belong to God better.
I’m tempted to make the resolution to follow Jesus’ 12 year old lead and occasionally let myself run to the places where I know God’s presence best and dwell there sometimes, no matter what else is knocking on my door, no matter who else is searching for my attention. Maybe my resolution, the resolution I invite you to join me in making, is not to try to be a better mother or sister or even a better pastor, but maybe my resolution will be to know more fully, more intimately, more daily the one to whom I belong.
I may run sometimes to Scripture. I may run sometimes to prayer. I may run sometimes outside to see and breathe and hear the creation my Creator has formed all around me. I may run sometimes to my family and enjoy the life we share in Christ’s love. I sometimes may even run to the church – not our building, but our people. The people who have been called to live in this blessed community, the people who have committed to walking the same road of faith, the people who struggle live obediently and faithfully and joyfully in the presence of the one to whom we all belong. I have a feeling in discovering what it means to be a child of God, especially in discovering it together, in finding out about the one whose we are, we will come infinitely closer to being the people God created us to be.
For me and for all of us, may it be so.
I have to note here that my favorite sermon of all time is on this text and very much this topic. I did not intend to completely steal it and repreach it as my own, but after literally years of daily, then weekly, then simply regularly listening to it it has become a part of my being and my own hearing of this text. With a huge debt of gratitude I share with you this link to Reginald Blount's sermon "Longing for Identity" that I first heard at the Princeton Youth Forum in April 2004. Much of what I have written echoes what he said, and as hard as I tried I could not shake that Word from God from my mind.