Click here for the video: Growing Up
In the year of our Lord 1960 deep in the heart of the piney woods of East Texas I turned twelve. The country was on the verge of a major transition from the normalcy of the Eisenhower era to the New Frontier of the Kennedy era. Unbeknownst to us we were leaving the traditional 50’s for the turbulent 60’s. Likewise, I was moving from the friendly confines of Birdwell Elementary to the shark tank of Hogg Junior High.
During that year there were ups and downs. A high note was my Birdwell Apaches Little League team winning its second straight city championship. A low was my sixth grade girl friend Susan Brelsford dumping me after taking one look at that bronze god Eric Wilcox at Hogg Junior High. She broke my twelve-year old heart-she would be the first of many.
At Easter of that year I was baptized like many in my church tradition. And that summer I had my first deeply felt spiritual experience in Muir Woods, just north of San Francisco. The shaft of light breaking through that tall canopy of trees revealed something of that light overcoming all darkness. I will never forget that transformative moment. If you are wondering whether a twelve year really has spiritual experiences, let’s talk. That ecstatic moment in Muir Woods was every bit as real as the heartbreak over Susan Brelsford. Do not underestimate the heart of a twelve-year old.
To be twelve is to stand at the threshold-leaving childhood and entering adolescence. It is a pivotal season in one’s life. The Jewish tradition recognizes this turning point with its Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies a year later at age 13. And so it was with Jesus of Nazareth. Our text provides the only information in the Gospels about Jesus between his birth and his baptism. Whatever happened to him in those “hidden years”? That is where the Apocryphal Gospels fill in the gap with their many yarns and legends. Some of these stories make you laugh and others make you cringe.
The Infancy Gospel of Thomas has the most legends of Jesus’ childhood and youth. This fanciful gospel relates the miracles Jesus performed from age 5 to 12, quite the young prodigy! One Sabbath he fashioned from soft clay twelve pigeons and is thus accused of working on the sacred day of rest. In response Jesus claps his hands and the clay pigeons suddenly turn into real pigeons and fly away. By the way, that legend makes it into the fifth sura or chapter of the Koran. The Koran also reports the story of infant Jesus preaching from his cradle-the world’s youngest preacher!
Now the miracles never cease in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Working with Joseph his carpenter father on a wooden bed, Jesus notes that one side is cut shorter than the other. No problem, Jesus stretches out the board to make it fit. Joseph is so delighted that he kisses Jesus on the head and says, “How blessed I am that God has given me this child!” The ultimate carpenter’s helper! On another occasion when James is struck by a viper, Jesus quickly heals his brother’s snakebite.
This gospel also relates the story of a rather petulant child who strikes dead any who oppose him. But I am glad to report that he was just teaching his opponents a lesson and so he always revives them again. But it is his teachers that especially bore the brunt of Jesus’ umbrage. Once when his teacher scolded him, Jesus struck him dead on the spot. Then Joseph rushes in to urge his son to revive him. Fortunately, Jesus gives his teacher a break and lets him live again. The moral of the story? Don’t mess with Jesus!
There are many more tales about Jesus in his childhood but you get the point. They all make Jesus to be a prodigy of wisdom and power right from his preaching in the cradle to smiting his teachers. In other words, they turn him into an adolescent Superman, hardly human and quite dangerous, a kid with a really bad attitude! In a somewhat similar vein, Josephus and Philo tell stories of the young Moses exhibiting great beauty and wisdom at a very tender age. All these tales assume that the “boy is the father of the man”-the childhood behavior anticipating the adult fame.
Now consider how the Gospel of Luke tells the story of the twelve-year old Jesus. Here the focus is on the temple in Jerusalem, the place where Jesus had been presented as an infant and acclaimed by Simeon and Anna. But there are so many questions Luke does not answer. Who all came down with Joseph and Mary in a caravan from Nazareth to the Passover celebration? How could Jesus be left behind and create a Biblical version of “Home Alone”? What did Jesus do in Jerusalem and where did he stay while his parents scurried back to find him? Exactly what was Jesus discussing with the teachers of the law that so astounded them? How is it that his parents do not understand him, they who witnessed his miraculous birth?
So many questions Luke does not answer. Luke’s story hinges upon what Jesus says, his first recorded words in the Gospels. When asked what he is doing in the temple, Jesus answers with two puzzling questions. First, “Why were you searching for me?” There is more to Jesus’ response than the typical adolescent desire to break away from home. Here Jesus seems to imply that family cannot be the ultimate value, that spiritual commitments override all such relationships. Then Jesus asks them, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” That seems to be the theological point of this whole story. Even as an emerging adolescent Jesus displays a sense of vocation, a sense of purpose, even a sense of his destiny. Beyond his family is his calling in life-to be about his heavenly Father’s business. Indeed, some twenty years later Jesus’ vocation will lead him back to this temple to overturn its tables and pronounce judgment precisely on his “Father’s house.” So Luke depicts Jesus as quite capable of having deeply felt spiritual commitments, even at that young age. And even if this is a pious legend, it does not seem implausible to me. It rather reminds us never to underestimate the heart of a twelve-year old.
But it is the last two verses of this story that grab our attention. After this coming out scene in the temple, Jesus does return to Nazareth with the family caravan. And Luke says that Jesus was obedient to his parents, honoring them as the fifth commandment insists. And Jesus found favor with God and with others. In other words, Jesus matured, growing in wisdom, faith, and love.
So this story begs the question: what does it mean to grow up? For Jesus, it meant learning obedience and preparing for his vocation. So what does growing up mean to you, in whatever stage of life you find yourself? Specifically, how do we all grow up into maturity in Christ? Again and again the New Testament urges us to move from milk to meat, from childhood into maturity, from uncertainty to conviction. Listen to these clarion calls in the epistles to mature: “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:18). We are called to seek “maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ…we must grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4: 12-15). Think of Jesus’ relationship with his disciples, probing them, teaching them, holding them accountable, always urging them to become more and more attuned to that Kingdom that is dawning. Discipleship is always a lifetime challenge. I am a work in progress. You are a work in progress.
So what does a mature disciple of Jesus Christ look like? Consider our reading from Colossians 3: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.”
So, sisters and brothers, consider your life, your calling to be a mature disciple of Jesus Christ. Are you growing in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, love and peace? That is your high calling and that is why the Christian journey is never static, never boring, never complete. We are being molded daily by the Spirit of Christ to become like Christ. And not just for ourselves, but for the sake of One who has called us and claimed us in baptism to be bearers of light in a darkened world, heralds of good news in a world of bad news! Friends in Christ, we are not our own. We have been bought with a price. And so let us grow up in every way into Christ! And never, never stop growing! May it be so! Amen.