When Jesus was Naughty

FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Psalm 148
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:41-52

Prayer of the Day: Shine into our hearts the light of your wisdom, O God, and open our minds to the knowledge of your word, that in all things we may think and act according to your good will and may live continually in the light of your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” Luke 2:48.

I have often wondered why we have this story about Jesus slipping away from Mary and Joseph to listen to the scribes as they taught in the Temple. This is the one and only New Testament story we have about Jesus’ childhood. You would think the evangelist could do better. Why not give us the story of Jesus winning the Nazareth Elementary School spelling bee? Or Jesus making the winning touchdown for Galilee Regional High School in the big game against arch rival Judea? Or how about Jesus receiving his Eagle Scout medal? Why not a story about Jesus’ youth that we can hold up as an example to our children? Why does the one story we have about the childhood of Jesus have to be a story about Jesus doing exactly what we all tell our children they must never do? Why this story about Jesus being naughty?

It might be helpful to step back for a moment from the task of figuring out what this story means and ask a different question. We might try asking, “Where do I find myself in this story?” As a parent who has raised three children, my sympathies go first to Mary and Joseph. Let’s face it, this is every parent’s nightmare. For three long days Mary and Joseph lived that nightmare. They must have wondered whether they would ever see their son again. They must have struggled not to imagine the worst. They must have asked themselves a thousand times, “Why didn’t we just keep a better eye on him?” So I can imagine the relief Mary and Joseph experienced when they found the boy, Jesus, safe in the temple. I can well imagine how they must have been torn between their longing to take him in their arms and hug him with all their might on the one hand, and on the other their urge to slap him silly for putting them through three days of hell.

When I was a teenager, I think I might have had a different take on this story. I would have sympathized more with Jesus. I understand, as I suspect a lot of children do, what it is like to have a calling, a passion, an interest that parents just don’t understand. “Why do you waste time on that project of yours when your homework still isn’t done?” “Why can’t you go out and play with the other kids?” “Sitting in your room with a book is a waste of a beautiful day like this.” “You have to start being practical. You can’t expect to make a living off painting watercolors, or writing poems or turning over rocks to find interesting bugs.” “You have to start thinking about your future.” I can hear Joseph telling his son, “It’s nice to be religious and to have an interest in the Bible, Jesus. But that won’t help you build chairs and tables in the carpenter’s shop.” There was a time when I could identify with a kid whose dreams and whose interests were different from family and cultural expectations.

I also have to say that I can identify with the scribes in this story. Like me, they were teachers who sought to engage their people with the scriptures. That can be a frustrating task, especially when it comes to young people. It is often so hard to connect with kids whose interests and concerns are so different from my own. Frankly, that is an area in my ministry where I would like to have been able to do better than I did. Believe me, I tried. Thus, I can understand how overjoyed these scribes must have been to find a young boy who seemed to love the scriptures, who asked them deep and probing questions, who thought deeply about his answers and always came back with yet more questions. I can imagine that these scribes were overjoyed to meet this boy Jesus, who was so inquisitive, hungry for knowledge and eager to learn. This is the kid all teachers dream about having in their class.

Maybe the evangelist wants to remind us that real life is messy. The Nativity is nothing if not good news for people like us who live in a messy world with a lot of loose ends. Sometimes the most promising student turns out not to be “the good kid,” the one that follows all the rules, gets the homework done on time and scores high on the SAT. It might just be the kid who ran away from home and isn’t even supposed to be in class. Sometimes our worst parenting blunders turn out to be the tools God uses to accomplish God’s purpose for our children-which might be a lot different than our own hopes and dreams for them. Sometimes you have to swim against the tide of home, family and friends to be the person you really are-even when it inflicts pain, causes disruption and results in feelings of hurt and betrayal. Jesus didn’t come into the world to make any of that easier. Instead, he came into the midst of our messy lives to inject his own divine life into them. However complicated, messy and mixed up things may get in our lives, Jesus is at work weaving all their loose ends, unfinished business and broken pieces into the fabric of God’s new creation. That is what we mean when we say that the Word of God became flesh.

So, you see, there is a place for everyone in the biblical narrative. Whether you are the frantic parent racing to keep up with a kid that seems altogether of control; or whether you are a young person struggling to figure out who you are under the suffocating weight of parental, school and societal expectations; or whether you are a preacher fighting to make the voice of God heard in a world that isn’t listening, there is a place for you in this great epic saga we call the Bible. As I have told every confirmation class I have ever had, every Bible class I have ever taught and every congregation to which I have ever preached: the Bible is not a book about stuff that happened way back when. It is a book about what is happening today. The Old, Old Story of Jesus and his love is not over yet. There are more chapters to be written, more characters to be introduced and twists in the plot that we cannot foresee. To be sure, we know that the end will be Jesus’ return in glory. But that end isn’t in sight yet. For now, as Paul would say, “we walk by faith and not by sight.” And we walk by faith because we do not walk alone. We travel with Jesus and his disciples in every age knowing that, whether we see it, understand it or perceive it, Jesus is about his Father’s business of redeeming our lives.

Here is a poem by Jane Kenyon about God’s injection of Jesus’ life blood into the world.

Mosaic of the Nativity: Serbia, 1993

On the doomed ceiling
God is thinking:
I made them my joy,
and everything else I created
I made to bless them.
But see what the do?
I know their hearts
and arguments:

We’re descended from
Cain. Evil is nothing new,
so what does it matter now
if we shell the infirmary,
and the well where the fearful
and the rash alike must
come for water?”

God thinks Mary into being.
Suspended at the apogee
of the golden dome,
she curls in a brown pod,
and inside her the mind
of Christ, cloaked in blood,
lodges and begins to grow.

Source: Poetry, December 1995. Jane Kenyon (1947-1995) was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She attended the University of Michigan in her hometown and completed her master’s degree there in 1972. It was there also that she met her husband, the poet Donald Hall, who taught there. Kenyon moved with Hall to Eagle Pond Farm, in New Hampshire where she lived until her untimely death in 1995 at age 47. You can read more of Jane Kenyon’s poetry and find out more about her at the Poetry Foundation Website.

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