What is it we are to learn from the single story of Jesus’ youth? Time flies. The Romans called it, “Tempus Fugit”. It means the same thing. We are not the first, nor will we be last people to have some sense of time traveling faster than it should. Our children are growing up right before our eyes, the community is changing, and our lives passing before us in the blink of an eye; this is central to being human.
The Bible gives us a sense of flying time when it comes to the life of Jesus. It seems like only yesterday that I was standing here watching our children retell the story of Jesus’ birth. Now less than a week later, the manger scene is moved, the animals are gone, and Jesus is twelve years old. Talk about growing up fast! Did we miss the visit of the Wise Men altogether? Yes, we did. They are in Matthew’s gospel. Our feet are firmly planted in the second chapter of Luke. Here, there are no wise men. Jesus is a baby, and then at once, he is a teenager. Luke’s story stops and restarts in the matter of two verses.
Joseph and Mary return to Nazareth with their child. Here is where the Christmas story ends, and our imagination begins, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him.” Twelve years of Jesus’ life summed up in seventeen words. Who were his friends? What was he like in school? Did he play well with others? We just do not know. If Luke knew, he didn’t want to tell us. Luke who showed us so much and recorded the greatest parables Jesus ever taught left these formative years blank. That is until the age of 12.
I like to think that Mary and Joseph were always devout. Indeed, if you were asked to parent the Messiah, even the holiest person would up their religious game. If attending synagogue wasn’t a priority, it would become more important in your life. Luke tells us that Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Passover festival every year. This is a significant time and financial commitment.
This fills in one gap over the previous 12 years. We know they had an annual tradition of attending the Passover. Now we know something else. Luke is telling us: when Jesus goes to the Passover as an adult, it’s not a new thing or out of character. He’s been going for years. Jesus knows Jerusalem like the back of his hand. His familiarity with Jerusalem begins after his birth.
This trip should be no different from any of the previous journeys that Jesus has taken with his family. Along with their extended family, friends, and neighbors; they would travel to Jerusalem and participate in the Passover feast activities in and around the temple. Jews from all over the Mediterranean world and even those who lived in lands far to the east would make the journey home to Jerusalem. Thousands of people would descend upon the holy city to remember the Exodus and God’s promises to the Israelites.
Despite the crowds, the cacophony of sounds and languages, and the inevitable chaos; I find it interesting that Mary and Joseph weren’t helicopter parents. Jesus, at 12, must be alright. (So they thought.) He knew where he was. What kind of trouble could Jesus get into? Yes, he was with family and friends! That’s what they thought as they journeyed out of Jerusalem on the last day of the festival. He wasn’t there.
Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph and their entire extended family did what we all enjoy watching Macaulay Culkin do every Christmas. They left him “Home Alone.” It wasn’t really “Home Alone.” It was “Jerusalem Temple Alone.” Yet, if you can imagine the movie, with the McAlister family heading through O’Hare Airport, self-obsessed and trying to make their plane to Paris on time, and only realizing when they’re comfortably boarded who they’ve forgotten; you’ve seen the chaos Luke is trying to describe.
So yes, if you feel like you’ve seen this movie before, you have. In fact, I think you’ve seen two movies. Its Ferris Bueller’s Day Off meets Home Alone. Initially, whether Jesus is “left” or “leaves” himself alone is up for interpretative grabs. Here’s what matters: once Mary and Joseph are on their way back to Nazareth, he’s Ferris Bueller, alone in the big city, a young man in the world of adults who try to solve grand problems with epic solutions. Schools out and the world is his to be embraced and enjoyed.
The defining scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off comes during a downtown Chicago street parade. It the annual German-American Festival (a large part of the cultural heritage of the Midwestern cities like Chicago) and floats are making their way through Dearborn Street. In the confusion of the crowd, Ferris slips away and disappears from his two friends (Cameron and Sloane). It’s at the moment; they ask the question, “What do you think Ferris is going to do?” What will this remarkable young man do with the rest of his life? It is then, the floats start moving, the marching bands resume, and Ferris emerges from the center of float surrounded by women dressed in traditional German dresses. He’s singing the Beatles iconic version of “Twist and Shout.” The whole parade is singing with him. For blocks and blocks, people have come together to dance, sing, twist, and shout.
Ferris brings everyone together to sing. It is an uplifting and life-affirming moment. His two friends, who minutes before couldn’t find him, now realize there was only place Ferris could possibly be: that was somewhere he could express his full “Ferris-ness.” In the case it was it was on the float lip-syncing to the Beatles. In hindsight, it was apparent. Where else would Ferris be but in the center of a float in downtown Chicago, on a day off from school, and singing the Beatles?
That brings us back to Mary and Joseph. Like the McAlister family, somewhere over the Atlantic, the Holy Family realized Jesus was Jerusalem Alone about a day back into the journey toward Nazareth. Mary stopped at every camel rental office between Judea and Galilee trying to find a ride back to the city. All the while they were asking and looking, “Has anyone seen Jesus?” He was nowhere to be found. I thought you had him. I saw him the other day. Wasn’t he with you? The questions and explanations kept coming, but Jesus never appeared. Mary’s most important priority was to get back to Jerusalem.
One day of travel and three days of searching, that’s four days Jesus was missing. We would call that an Amber Alert. Where could Jesus be? What could Jesus be doing? I don’t know Jesus’ entire schedule. Luke doesn’t tell us. Jesus, later in the gospels, never gives us any hints about those “days off.” Did he sneak into a fancy restaurant and take in a Cubs game? Who knows? Was he in the heart of the city, downtown, where commerce, religion, people, merchants, priests, poets, painters, and others made their living in one of the most exciting cities of the world? Yes. You can take that to the bank. That’s where you’ll find Jesus. Soaking up everything he can from everyone he meets. Jesus is a little more like Ferris than we may want to admit.
I wonder, like Ferris’s friends, if his parents heard his voice. Perhaps they heard him singing the Psalms or speaking with the teachers of the law. Is that what gave it away? Was is it his voice? Mary’s “a-ha” moment was “that’s Jesus singing.” “Where else could he be but at the temple?” “Yes, that makes perfect sense.” Of course, Jesus is standing in the courtyard of the temple singing the Psalms. It’s as good a theory any I’ve read.
I am fond of saying “Jesus shows us where we least expect him.” Jesus comes to us in forms we easily ignore or don’t want to acknowledge. That’s another way of saying that Jesus doesn’t hide. Jesus is going to be in the places and people we expect him to be. Our challenge is not to narrow or limit those expectations. We want to grow and expand our “of course” places in which we see Jesus at work. This is one of the greatest challenges in being a Christian in the 21st – to see God at work in new “default” ways.
Richard Lowell Bryant