They found him…sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions…And Jesus grew in wisdom.” (Luke 2:46, 52)
Jesus was a middle schooler once. Can you imagine that? Popping pimples. Voice cracking. Surging hormones. Changing body. Our stained glass images of a stoic Jesus the Son of God and second person of the Trinity hovering 6 inches off the ground make it difficult to fathom his full-blooded humanity. Thankfully Luke provided at least one episode from Jesus’ boyhood in his Gospel narrative.
Someone has said that Jesus’ childhood is like a walled garden, the inside of which no one has seen. Luke has plucked one flower from inside that garden and that’s what we have here in our Gospel text today. We can imagine Luke in preparing to write his Gospel visiting with Mary for hours, hearing some of the wonderful things Mary “treasured in her heart” (Luke 2:51) and choosing which episodes to include in his story. Out of all the things he heard from Mary, Luke has chosen this one incident, perhaps because it reveals so much about the boy Jesus. We also get a glimpse into what it was like to be the parents of this extraordinary 12 year old. (By the way, couple good novels that ponder the childhood years of Jesus in a respectful way are by Christ the Lord and The Road to Cana by Anne Rice.) Here’s the text:
41 Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. 42 When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. 43 After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. 44 Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” 49 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he was saying to them. 51 Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.
This fall we did a soft launch of a new Wednesday night youth ministry gathering called “Jason’s House.” We are asking the very basic but important question as church leaders and parents: How will MainStreet approach the important work of forming young boys and girls in the Christian faith? What is the ultimate goal of a youth ministry? What kind of programming will best achieve that goal? What kind of leadership is needed to effectively shape and mold young hearts and minds for God’s Kingdom? Let’s see if we can’t glean any pointers from this text on what it means to be “growing wiser and more mature, and in favor with God and his fellow man” (Luke 2:52).
According to Jewish custom, a male child became a man and embraced the traditions of his ancestors at the age of thirteen. This tradition would later become the bar mitzvah celebration still practiced among Jews today, and has similarities to the practice of Confirmation in many churches around the same age. This episode finds Jesus as a 12 year old on the eve of this significant rite of passage. What do we observe?
First, we observe that faith and wisdom is gained by living our lives within and ritualizing THE STORY OF GOD (against all other competing stories). That is, Jesus was part of a family and faith community immersed in the sacred Story of Israel’s God. They not only knew this story, they re-enacted it through regular rituals and ingested it at annual feasts. One way children entered into this community story was through annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the feasts of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. Each of these festivals plunged young minds into the imaginative world of Israel’s meaning-shaping and identify forming history. The Passover, for instance, was a reminder that God has liberated his people from bondage in the past and He will again liberate them from their present plight when the Messiah comes.
Luke describes Mary and Joseph here as parents devoted to the Jewish faith and traditions: “Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival” (Luke 2:41). In today’s parlance, these are folks who faithfully bring their children to worship each Sunday, and don’t let soccer tournaments take priority. These are parents who constantly tell their children stories of God’s interventions in history and celebrate in active ritual his saving power and love. A Passover family pilgrimage in March would trump the ancient equivalent of a spring break trip to Florida to indulge in the dominating counterstory of consumerism and superfluous entertainment.
As we attempt to raise up our children in the ancient faith Jesus, how can we find creative ways to tell and retell the Story of God’s love for the world most fully displayed in the life, death, resurrection, ascension and future coming of Jesus Christ? How can we so immerse ourselves in the Sacred Story so as to resist the pressure of conforming our lives to the alternative meaning-shaping and identity-forming narratives propagated by the culture around us?
Two main teaching goals I have for the youth at Jason’s House and our future Confirmation process are: 1) to help them grasp and articulate in their own words the Big Story undergirding all the smaller Bible stories we learned in Sunday school; and 2) help them recognize and resist all the other competing worldview-shaping stories of the culture. Wisdom comes by inhabiting and ritualizing the Story of God.
Second, we observe that faith and wisdom is formed within A COMMUNITY CARAVAN. Let me explain. As modern parents reading this story, accustomed to traveling with nuclear family in a single car, we shriek in horror at the thought of leaving our child behind on a cross-country road trip. We think of poor little Kevin in the movie Home Alone all by himself in Chicago, and his mother’s shock and terror when she realizes it on a plane en route to Paris. We read this story and immediately want to report Joseph and Mary to child protective services!
But the Jews of that time live in extended families, and whole caravans of relatives and friends traveled together. The danger from robbers was lessened and fellowship was heightened. Mary and Joseph would be in the caravan from Nazareth or Galilee, and they may have even joined up with other neighboring villages to form a great company moving across the hills and deserts to and from Jerusalem.
So, now picture a large caravan of a hundred or more with the women and children at the front and the men and boys to the rear. We can imagine Joseph saying on the return trip, “Jesus must be with His mother,” while His mother assumed he was back with the men. It was probably not until they made camp at night that they realized he was missing.
This image of a communal caravan on a spiritual journey together is a powerful ideal the church needs to recover in our attempts to form young people in the wisdom of Jesus. In ancient Jewish and Christian communal cultures, the children belonged to everybody. When a child is baptized, all the church members take the vows. In a sense, they are all the godparents. Every child who is baptized within the congregation belongs not just to his or her blood parents, but to the family of God. In Nazareth, families lived out this belief in their everyday lives.
Many parents wanting their children to be reared in the faith look for a church with a good youth program where they can drop them off at the door Wednesday nights and let the professionally trained youth pastor take care of the rest. I have spent years on staff as a full time paid youth expert, leading and teaching a room full of 50 or more teenagers. We had the cool youth worship band, the smoke machines, the silly games and fun retreats, evangelistic lock-ins and fun outreach efforts—all aimed at convincing busy and distracted youth that Christianity can be just as relevant and cool as the other school extracurricular activities their parents dropped them off at the other nights of the week.
Unfortunately, the studies are in, and this seeker-driven, entertainment model of youth ministry so popular the past 40 years has maybe successfully drawn crowds, but the studies reveal that such methods have largely failed to help young people “grow in wisdom and maturity” as disciples of Jesus.
MainStreet is heeding the Lord’s advice to Jeremiah “stand at the crossroads” of this cultural moment and “ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is” (Jer 6:16) and build a youth ministry upon it. That good and ancient pathway for raising up young disciples includes, I believe, a “communal caravan” approach where our young people journey together in the company of older wiser elders, invested parents, committed volunteers, intergenerational Huddles, youth interns and the pastor. What a gift for a young person to know they have not only their mom and dad cheering them along through the challenges of adolescence, but an entire church family filled with spiritual aunts and uncles, grandparents, brothers and sisters in Christ. We mature in faith and wisdom best in a community caravan.
Third, the 12-year old Jesus models the posture we need to instill in our youth if they are to grow in wisdom in a wisdom-less society. When his anxious parents finally track him down after three excruciating days, where did they find him? They found him “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (v. 46). Here in this one verse are the 3 key ingredients for recovering a wisdom culture for the church today: 1) sit at the feet of a sage, 2) listen receptively and 3) ask lots of questions.
You may be aware that my doctoral research the past two years has been exclusively on the teaching and learning methods of the Jewish rabbis and Greco-Roman philosophers. Being both practically minded and historically curious, I want to see if we can recover certain ancient teaching methods that might help us slow the growing tide of biblical illiteracy in our culture and churches today.
Since gaining wisdom is such a dominant theme across the entire Bible, my professor Scot McKnight has been asking the question: Why is the Wisdom literature in the Old Testament so widely ignored in the church…? Why is wisdom so little valued in our churches today? McKnight believes the problem can be summed up in one big fun-to-say word: juvenilization. Sometime around the middle of the 20th century, the American church began to focus on adapting the faith to “market it”—and I use those consumer-laden words intentionally—to a wider (and younger) audience. Certainly, these efforts were driven by well-intentioned evangelistic motives. Reach the next generation! Show Christianity is relevant to the emerging youth culture!
Churches soon stopped relying on gray-haired elders in the congregation to teach the next generation, but instead began hiring young, hip youth pastors instead. Relevance replaced wisdom as the name of the game. In McKnight’s words:
People today care less about growing up or gaining wisdom and far more about staying young, maintaining relevancy, and dressing according to latest youth fad. No one wants to get old and weak and die, but wanting to remain a teenager is a sign of juvenilization and not wisdom.
Skinny jeans and magnetic personality over life-experience. Relevance over wisdom. Entertainment over deeper formation. Measuring attendance instead of spiritual fruit. Susan Neiman, in her brilliant book called Why Grow Up?, cuts to core of this problem when it takes root in our churches: “When consuming goods rather than working becomes the focus of our culture, we have created (or acquiesced in) a society of permanent adolescents.”
Jesus and the all the sages of old were groomed within a religious culture that aimed at passing on wisdom from generation to generation. My professor defines wisdom as “Living in God’s world in God’s Way” and the secret to gaining such wisdom is through a posture of “receptive reverence” for one’s elders and teachers. Boy Jesus models this posture as we see him “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (v. 46).
At MainStreet, we want all ages (and especially our youth) to cultivate a greater appetite for wisdom. At Jason’s House, I am setting aside at least one Wednesday each month to go pass on to them the Christ-shaped wisdom I have gained. I have already been calling our little conversations “Wisdom Talks.” Among the core values Caleb and I established and shared the first night, is “creating a culture of curiosity and question-asking”—where the students’ questions drive the conversation more than the teacher’s lesson. That is, we are all learning the art of receptive listening and question-asking.
By the way, we are not at all opposed to fun and games, electric guitars and smoke machines, retreats and attractional ministry events. But our main aim is nurturing Christ-shaped wisdom in young hearts and minds as we all learn to sit at Jesus’ feet, listening to His teaching and asking Him our biggest life questions. We want to recover a Wisdom Culture at MainStreet—for all ages.
Fourth, and finally, we observe boy Jesus struggling with competing loyalties—and wisely choosing God’s Business above all. This is a rather painful moment for mother and son as an exasperated mother rebukes Jesus saying, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you” (v. 48). You half expect her next words to be, “Jesus, you’re grounded for 3 sabbaths!” The tension only tightens as Jesus returns her question with his own mysterious question: “Why were you searching for me?” he asks. Then the zinger: “Didn’t you know I had to be about my Father’s business” (v. 49)?
Healthy parents view their role as providing a stable launching pad for their kids and helping point them in the right direction before launch day—typically when they leave the nest around 18 years old (or 30, for others). So which direction should we be pointing our children as they grow up? Where are we to aim their ambitions, life goals, vocational aspirations, and core values? There are three main options—two foolish ones and one wise (to keep with our wisdom theme).
First, some parents try to get their kids to pursue the parents’ own preferred path for their children—“Become a doctor like me” or “Take over the family business.” They want their children to be about the parent’s business.
Second, and perhaps most common today, many encourage their children to chase after their own dreams and life goals saying things like: “Look deep within yourself”; “Be all you can be;” “We believe in you”; “Believe in yourself”; “Spread your wings and fly!” If God is left out of the equation, this can launch our children into a life being about their own self-centered business.
Third, we find the option Jesus is already pursuing as an exceptionally wise and mature-beyond-his-years boy. He reminds his mother and father, who have undoubtedly been pointing him in this direction his entire life, that “I have to be about my Heavenly Father’s business” (v. 49). Are we surprised to see Jesus, already at 12 years of age, learning to “Seek first His Kingdom” and pray, “Not my will but thy will be done”?
Godly parents raise Godly children when by launching them out into a life of putting God’s business—His mission, His values, His priorities—above their own dreams and above the plans and expectations others have for them. As parents and as a church family, how can we help our young people submit their future hopes and aspirations to the life God is preparing for them? How can we make sure our business with our children doesn’t hinder and get in the way of them being about their Heavenly Father’s business?
Let me close with an email I sent to the parents of our fledgling little youth group I’ve been meeting with monthly for “Wisdom Chats.”
I enjoyed my monthly “Jesus-Wisdom chats” with your awesome kids last night at Carbone’s—and the pizza is a nice additional treat. Ten years from now, those boys will probably not recall the topics we covered, but they’ll hopefully have warm memories of eating pizza with the pastor and knowing that there was something significant about those chats—something sacred and holy, or “weighty,” was being explored together at that table.
I plan to focus my chats with them on Jesus and his wisdom. Last night we explored Jesus’ wisdom from Matt 16:24-27 especially zeroing in on his words, “What good is it to gain the whole world, but lose your soul?” In a foolish world obsessed with chasing external things like fame, riches, worldly success and personal happiness, Jesus wisely teaches us to not neglect our soul’s health, our soul’s desires and our eternal purpose. While school, sports, an activities nurture their physical and intellectual growth, we at MainStreet will do our bet to help nurture their inner being. I did not share this verse last night, but it goes very well with Jesus’ point: “Above all else, guard your heart (=soul), for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23). I encourage you to recite and memorize these verses with them before bed or over dinner as you think of it.
There you have it: 5 boys found in the Pizza Temple of Carbone’s, gathered around a teacher, listening as intently as one can with loud music and TV screens everywhere, and asking questions about the Christian faith. Just a small MainStreet caravan sharing a journey to a deeper understanding of the Story of God and the Ways of Wisdom. A table full of squirrelly boys drinking root beer and trying to figure out what it means to be about the Father’s Business as a 12-year old in today’s world.
May God smile upon these humble efforts in the coming years and let it be said of our youth what was said of boy Jesus: “And he grew in wisdom and maturity, and in favor with God and all people” (Luke 2:52). Amen!