You know how parents construct a story about their children, the story that starts to set out the way they see the answers to the questions: who is my child? What is special about him/her?
I did it myself. I would tell Christopher the story of how I held him when he was first born, and how he looked at me and how I looked at him, and how I loved him. Though I don’t think I ever told him about how I prayed for him in that first gaze and at his baptism four weeks later.
And we tell the story of how we took him to Alnwick Castle for a day trip when he was 3, and we went into the little museum, and how interested he was when I talked to him about the objects that we saw. And we said to each other, he is going to be a historian when he grows up, which, of course, is exactly what happened.
I imagine too that it was like that for the Gospel writers, as it is for anyone writing a narrative, whether they are historians or story-tellers, that they are asking themselves the same kind of questions: who is my subject? What is special about her/him?
When it comes to Jesus’ early life, we don’t have a lot to go on. There are the stories of his birth in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which don’t exactly back each other up, because they are such very different stories. And we have the story in Luke that we heard just now in the Gospel reading, the story of the visit to Jerusalem when Jesus was 12. None of the other Gospels tell this story. This is the only place we find it. It could be that Luke learnt about this incident from Mary herself, as there is a tradition that Luke knew got to know Mary, but it doesn’t seem to have been a story that was widely told in the early church. Or it could be Luke trying to make sense of Jesus’ life.
Lots of people have wondered what Jesus was like as a young man. What were the influences on him? There are lots of stories about the missing years of Jesus’ life which have him visiting India or Glastonbury. Apart from the stories that grow up in particular places, we have no evidence one way or the other.
But maybe we should look at what the story does tell, what Luke is trying to tell us through this story.
Do you remember your Confirmation? Some of you were confirmed as adults, I know, but some were confirmed as youngsters. I was 11 ½ years old, a little younger than Jesus in the story, but just a matter of months. And I know how seriously I took my Confirmation. I made those promises, and I meant them. I was committing myself to God, there was no doubt about that. At that age, though most of your life is about school and going around with your mates, you have quite a serious streak at the same time when you have choices to make that affect the rest of your life.
And perhaps there was something of that for Jesus – probably more so.
He and his parents travel with a crowd from Galilee to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. The story doesn’t mention his Bar Mitzvah, but he was the right age, and it probably would have happened in Jerusalem. On the two occasions I have stayed in Jerusalem, I have watched Bar Mitzvahs taking place by the Wailing Wall. This is a rite of passage, a boy becoming an adult in spiritual life.
When the festival is over, they all start for home, but Jesus isn’t with them. The parents assume he is with his friends, but after a day’s journey, they can’t find him any where, so they start back to Jerusalem. This was all by foot, so they must have been pretty fed up.
Back in Jerusalem, they find Jesus eventually. He’s in the temple, busy debating with the religious teachers. It is more than just the story of a precocious, pious lad. The story is showing us something about who Jesus is. It shows that he has knowledge and wisdom beyond his years, and perhaps that knowledge and wisdom come from somewhere other than earthly teaching. This young Jesus has tremendous confidence, not just to ask questions, but to engage the adult religious authorities in debate and to keep their interest.
Jesus’ parents upbraid him for remaining behind. And he replies with the pious retort that didn’t they know he would be in his father’s house? There is something in there of the character of every adolescent you have ever known: stroppy, asserting that they are right whatever the circumstances.
There is a 14th century painting of this incident by Simone Martini in the Liverpool Walker Gallery: it is 770 years old, and depicts Jesus as a stroppy teenager. It is probably not the way most people think of Jesus. There is Mary remonstrating with him, and Joseph with a friendly hand on Jesus’ shoulder, and its as if he’s saying, “Listen to your mum!” But look at Jesus, with his crossed arms and the look on his face.
But what the story does show is that Jesus’ passion, even as an adolescent, lies with the things of God. And it also prepares us that as far as Jesus is concerned, you should expect the unexpected.
And for us? What does all this mean for us, here and now?
For one thing, there is value in looking at our own stories, our own lives, to see where God has made an impact, and where we have made significant choices, or been influenced in a particular way. We can learn a lot about ourselves by looking again at our own experiences.
And then we look at Jesus, especially at the images we have had of him over the Christmas story. Many of them are so familiar, and then we are struck with another picture of Jesus entirely. How does this affect the way you feel about Jesus? How does it help you to get to know Jesus better?