Just after my first son was born, a family friend of ours looked over my shoulder at him sleeping, fragile and beautiful in my arms, and said that it was clear why God had to come to earth as a baby. There’s something kind of breathtaking about a baby, a sort of purity that draws people in. Babies—at least sleeping ones—seem to touch peoples’ sense of wonder, of miracle. I don’t know that I’ve never heard anyone say that about a 12 year old. No offense to any 12 year olds present, but when Charles Wesley wrote the soaring words of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing—“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity”—I have a hard time imagining that he had today’s gospel lesson in mind.
The doctrine of the Incarnation, the confident claim that in Jesus God has mysteriously and uniquely entered the world, is a marvellous thing. The high points of the Christian year—Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Good Friday and Easter Sunday—all give us these remarkable glimpses of what St. Paul sings about in his letter to the Philippians: this one who though he was “in the form of God” and “equal with God” didn’t grasp at that equality, but humbled himself, even to death, in order to be with us and for us and for the glory of God (veiled in flesh the Godhead see). It means that Jesus’ ministry, his whole life, tells us something about who and how God is. When Jesus heals the sick and raises the dead, when he feeds countless thousands with a bit of bread and few fish, when he calls people into a radical way of living, and is transfigured on a mountain, so that he shines like the sun, we start to see what it means to say that he is Emmanuel, God with us. In those amazing moments, it might not even seem that hard to believe.
But we don’t—or, I don’t—tend to think of the Incarnation, the embodiment, of the Almighty God, maker of heaven and earth, in the form of a 12 year old kid. The gospels don’t help us much with this. Luke’s story, at the end of the second chapter of his gospel, is the only one we have of Jesus between 8 days and 30 years old. There are some fairly formative years missing, and inquiring minds would generally like some answers. What on earth was Jesus doing? Creative folks have tried making up fantastic stories to fill in the gaps, over the centuries. But Luke’s response to the question, and something I think is really important to what it means to say that God really is with us in Jesus, seems to be that during those years he wasn’t doing anything especially extraordinary. At the end of today’s story he’ll go back to Nazareth, a place where nothing much happens, and from where nothing much comes, and live like any other first century, rural, Jewish kid.
It’s true that in the ancient world it wasn’t uncommon to tell stories about an important person around the age of 12, in order to set the stage for their later exploits. It’s not impossible that that’s why Luke feels like this story needs to be a part of his testimony to who and how Jesus is. What’s remarkable about the whole thing, though, is just how normal it is. I mean, we hear that he’s a bright kid. But a bright 12 year old isn’t that hard to find. In fact, anyone who spends time with your average 12 year old and actually listens to them can learn a fair bit about the world. There’s really not much terribly interesting about this story. In order to set the table for Jesus’ ministry, Luke just tells of him driving his parents crazy, of him getting into trouble because he was curious, and frankly, being a little bit saucy about it—I mean, if I ever spoke to my mother the way Jesus spoke to his: Look out! It’s not actually what we’d expect from the one who is supposed to be King of kings, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, whose rule and reign will know no end, like the prophets promised and Luke will insist that he is. You don’t get that from what Luke tells us here.
So, it’s a little frustrating that this is the only story we have about Jesus growing up; but I think it’s also delightful. I love the fact that we do see something essential to the character of God in a 12 year old. There’s something magnificent about God with scuffed knees and tousled hair, and always slightly in need of a bath; about God wide-eyed and curious; about God willing to be as awkward and uncertain as the rest of us, just to be with us. Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see.
On this Sunday after Christmas, as we now start again to figure out how to put our own flesh to what we’ve seen and heard, to give shape and form in whatever we do to the good news of great joy that God is with us and for us and making the world new, I’m quite grateful for this strange story of 12 year old Jesus. I want to lean into what we see. Because the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that Jesus didn’t just grow up—sure he increased in wisdom, and divine and human favor like a good prophet is supposed to. But it also seems possible that one of the reasons that Jesus tends to drive us crazy—not just his parents!—is that he never quite forgets what it is to be 12. The more I think about it, the older I get, the more responsible and mature I imagine myself to be by the standards of the world around me, the harder it is to be like Jesus. I wonder if what the Church needs these days is not more mature Christians but some less-mature ones?
I don’t think that Jesus ever loses the curiosity that we see in this story. There’s a sort of unchecked wonder that permeates his ministry. For instance, there are practical reasons that he’s always on the move, always going from place to place—he needs to proclaim the kingdom of God in the next town and the one after that—but isn’t it possible that he kind of wants to see what’s next? What kind of trouble will the Holy Spirit get them all into this time? He could have set up a nice, controlled shop and had everyone come to him. And probably they would have. But he didn’t do that; he kept on the move.
Or the story of the woman at the well, in the fourth chapter of John’s gospel, is one that comes to mind for me. (If it’s unfamiliar to you, I’d encourage you to check it out. But briefly, Jesus finds himself alone, at a well, in the middle of the day, with a Samaritan woman, and he asks her for a drink.) Jesus does seem to know what’s going on in the woman’s life, but there’s also an innocent sort of curiosity in that scene. Jesus knows he’s not supposed to talk to this woman, in this place, especially all alone. There are clear, cultural boundaries that both Jesus and the woman know full-well. Preachers often talk about Jesus boldly breaking those boundaries down, kicking down the doors of racial, gender, social, and religious separation. And I think that’s true. But with 12 year old Jesus in mind, it’s also not hard to imagine him pushing against those edges just to see what would happen. When he asks the woman for a drink of water there’s no indication that he’s certain of what her answer will be—but a space opens up.
I think curiosity is at the heart of Jesus’ story telling—which is the primary way that he teaches. It seems to me that most of his parables (teaching stories) come from the realm of children not adults. What productive and capable adult has the time to ponder the divine characteristics of yeast, or mustard seeds, or to consider the birds of the air and lilies of the field? Who could tell the story of the Prodigal Son, if they had a mature sense of justice, a grown-up attitude about right and wrong? Who could tell the story of the Good Samaritan, if they had an adult awareness of the dangers of deserted roads and the risks of dealing with strangers?
These are stories that demand a youthful curiosity about who and how God is; in order to “get it” we have to come to them with an open mind and a childlike readiness to learn and rethink what we think we know. Perhaps the reason that most Christians treat Jesus with reverence, but lots of us often struggle to take his teaching seriously in our lives, is that we don’t come to him expecting to learn anything. Instead we try to conform him to our experience, our expectations, our way of understanding how the world is and the way things are. Maybe, instead of making sure we have all of our answers packaged and ready when Jesus calls and challenges us, what we actually need is a little holy curiosity. We need holy curiosity if we’ll know the life he wants for us. We could learn something from Jesus, the incarnate deity, sitting in the Temple, eagerly listening and asking questions.
Even more than his curiosity, I’m quite certain that Jesus never lost his 12 year old sense of mischief. Somewhere, behind this story, is a moment when the boy weighed the pros and cons of staying behind in Jerusalem while his family and friends headed back to Nazareth. The way these travelling groups worked, he knew he could get away with it. I don’t know exactly how the conversation in his head went, but somehow he decided that facing Mary’s wrath was worth the risk. One guesses that he didn’t put a whole lot of forethought into what he was going to eat, or where he was going to stay in the long-run, or how he might eventually get back to Nazareth. But even if he did, that didn’t hold him back.
I’ve often thought that holy mischief is a pretty good definition of Jesus’ ministry. Whether he’s eating and drinking with the wrong people; encouraging folks to leave what they’re doing, drop their responsibilities and come on an adventure; or telling stories and teaching things that ruffle the feathers of the keepers of the way things are, there’s usually a sort of rebelliousness to what he’s about. He’s always poking and prodding in corners he’s not supposed to, going to places he’s not supposed to, keeping company with folks he’s not supposed to. Jesus seems to be more at home in the crowd that sits at the back of the class—the ones who like to find where the line of acceptability has been drawn and hop over it.
I don’t think Jesus ever grows out of the same sense of holy mischief that had Mary and Joseph tied in knots —that deep desire to get in on what God’s doing in the world, in order to upend the status quo in favor of something more. I know an awful lot of disciples who have echoed Mary, wondering at one point or another why Jesus would treat them like this? Why did you bring me to this place, Jesus? Why would you ask me to give that up, Jesus? How come I have to love those people, or care for this one? What do you mean anyone who tries to save their life will lose it, but whoever gives up their lives for the sake of the gospel and the topsy-turvy kingdom of God will gain life and more? Why would you say something like that to nice people like us, Jesus?
I imagine that whenever Jesus calls us, he does it with a mischievous glint in his eye. He knows that if we go with him, we’re going in unexpected directions, with unlikely people, for reasons that confound our mature and realistic ways of understanding the way things are. Jesus isn’t overly interested in carefully laid out plans and good religious order. He’s inviting us to a divine adventure, to get into a little holy mischief for the glory of God; to hang out a little longer in the Father’s company even if it drives our loved ones a little nuts. Wouldn’t it be something if people were annoyed at us for being a little too committed to the stuff that God’s about? Wouldn’t it be something if what the Church was mostly known for was causing holy trouble for the sake of love and justice and righteousness?
Of course, the story ends with Jesus obediently following Mary and Joseph back to Nazareth. I guess it can’t be all mischief all the time. I think this just brings us back to the fact that the Incarnation has to do with everyday life, God Alive in every moment, with parents and children, in time and place. This is Jesus being a good Jewish kid, honoring his father and mother—probably because if he pulls a stunt like that again he won’t live long in the land!
It is interesting, though, that we don’t really get Jesus’ take on the whole situation, in the end. What we learn is that Mary, when she catches her breath and her blood pressure settles, once again has something more to ponder in her heart. She had to do that when the shepherds stormed the stable, confirming that she hadn’t lost her mind: that this really does have to do with angels and miracles, that somehow God really is at work in all of it; that the Holy Spirit really has brought something to life that could not possibly otherwise be. Perhaps as she marched her boy back to Nazareth she was remembering her own youthful, mischievous curiosity that got her into this in the first place, that drew her into cahoots with Living God and let her say, Let it be with me according to Your word, come what may.
I’ve been thinking about this in my own life, and I want to share in the questions. What would it look like to embrace a little more holy curiosity about the world around us, our neighbors, our culture? What questions might we ask? What boundaries would we push, just to see what happens if we give God some space?
What would it look like to get even deeper into the world-changing holy mischief that the Holy Spirit is up to? To love unexpectedly, to give a little recklessly, to make peace where it seems impossible, to be more concerned with the stuff that God is about—grace and mercy, hope and joy, forgiveness and wonder—than any other expectation? What would it look like if we let 12 year old Jesus talk us into spending so much time in the company of the Father that it gave the world fits—and maybe even something to ponder, something that changed hearts?
I think it would have us alive to Paul’s prayer: To God, who by the power at work within us is able to do more than all we could ask or imagine, to God be the glory, in Christ Jesus and in the Church, forever and ever, Amen.