The Most Boring Story in the Gospels
Luke’s story of Jesus at the temple at age 12 is a bit of a palate-cleanser from the Christmas story (which has become rather sugary and familiar). It’s a common story—children wandering off, worried parents in a panic scurrying around to find them. Yet, it’s a unique story in the way it reveals who Jesus is, and what that means for us. Let me offer three points derived from the story: 1) Jesus at the threshold, 2) Jesus gets lost, and 3) Jesus in real life.
1. Jesus at the threshold
Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. (Luke 2:41-42)
It was March or April in about AD 8. Given that it was the warm time of year, there would have been fresh flowers and singing birds—all the springtime imagery. By including such details, Luke is showing that Mary and Joseph were faithful Jews. Even more than that, because men were the only ones required to make the trip at Passover, Luke was showing Mary’s devotion in travelling with Joseph and taking along her son.
Traveling to Jerusalem from their home in Nazareth would be like traveling from a tiny country village in New Jersey to New York City. Jesus was a star-struck by what he found—Jerusalem. The temple, in particular, was the fountainhead of the identity of faithful Jews. Being in Jerusalem for the Passover Season was something to which all Jews looked forward.
As a 12-year-old, Jesus’ instruction in the Jewish faith would become even more intense. His parents would explain to Jesus why they went to the temple each year, and what the great story behind their people was all about. Age 12—the time in that culture of entering adulthood—was a time of learning and increased understanding, a threshold in life recognized pretty much the world over at that time. The body was going through puberty, the mind and emotions started changing drastically. It was on this threshold that Jesus was at the temple when he “should” have been with his parents.
2. Jesus gets lost
After the festival ended and Jesus’ parents began the trek home, unbeknownst to his parents, Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. Mistakenly thinking he was somewhere else in the traveling group, Joseph and Mary traveled on for a day.
When Mary and Joseph did not locate Jesus in the caravan, they hurriedly returned to Jerusalem where, after three days, they found him in the temple. Think of it—three days!! Were we to lose our kids for three minutes, most of us would go into a cold sweat! We’d be looking in every doorway and back alley; the police station, all the hospitals, the arcades and fast-food restaurants.
A mother looking for her lost son is like Christians losing their spiritual mooring. Sometimes it’s like you can’t find God at all—no matter where you look. You even look in places that used to be familiar. God seemed to be present when I said this prayer or did this quiet time or went to this kind of church service, and then suddenly it seems my spiritual life is dry and dead and confusing. You’re looking in the doorways of those ideas or the back alleys of those old feelings, and you can’t find God.
Mary and Joseph walked into the temple to find Jesus doing what he’s always said he would do. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you” (Luke 2:48b).
I love Mary’s wording. Even 2,000 years ago, in the Aramaic language, stressed-out parents use the phrasing we use: “Your father and I…” “Your father and I work too hard for you to… Your mother and I have been looking for you!”
“Why were you searching for me?” [Jesus] asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them. (Luke 2:49-50)
Here Jesus’ personhood is coming out in more dimensions, and for him, his personhood is his God-hood as well. So we have this, the most “boring” and “everyday” of stories in the Gospels, becoming one of the most exciting—the moment that serves as a hinge between Jesus’ miraculous birth and his miraculous life.
3. Jesus in real life
Luke ends this section beautifully:
Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. (Luke 2:51)
This is said once before this—earlier in the chapter after the shepherds visited the manger. It was right in the middle of the drama and excitement of Jesus’ birth with statements made by visitors—both people and angels. Now, in this second instance, it’s in the midst of a very “real life” incident where Jesus gets separated from his parents. Still, Mary treasured all of this in her heart. She treasured the gifts of God, both the dramatic and the mundane.