My, how time flies! Just two days ago we were celebrating Jesus being born, and today, he’s already twelve years old! And getting into trouble. I think that if you have ever lost track of your child, you can sympathize with Mary and Joseph—searching for three days in Jerusalem, at the close of each day losing just a little bit more hope, maybe wondering what God was going to do to them for losing his son. From Jesus’ point of view, though, he was never lost—he knew where he was, and he knew he was supposed to be there. There’s a funny story in my family about how, when my brother was quite young, he went shopping at a local store with my father and my grandparents. My grandmother sent my brother over to the next aisle to get my grandfather, but when my brother got there, my grandfather had gone somewhere else. When my brother then tried to return to where my grandmother was, he couldn’t find her. So he went to a stranger and told her what was wrong. She brought him up to the service desk, where he promptly told the woman there that his father and his grandparents were lost. He was never lost, mind you, they were the ones who were lost. And I think that’s probably how Jesus felt, too.
So, what are we to make of this one story that we have from Jesus’ childhood? Those of you who have “tweens,” and those of us who can remember back that far, know that they rarely have their heads on straight at this age. Between schoolwork, activities, and the entrance into adolescence with all that entails, it’s a miracle any of us survived that age. And yet, sometimes people can receive their calling from God even when they’re young. In the movie, “Keeping the Faith,” about a priest and a rabbi who were long-time friends in New York City, the priest says that he knew from a young age that God was calling him into the priesthood, as people just seemed to feel comfortable coming to him with their problems. He relates how, when he told this to his parents, his mother cried, and his father simply wanted to know if working for God came with dental. (I only have this movie on videotape and I couldn’t find the right clip on YouTube, so I encourage you to watch this movie on your own, if you haven’t already. It’s a good movie that talks about people’s calling in life.)
And I think, ultimately, that’s what we can take from this story of Jesus in the Temple at 12 years old. It gives us pause to reflect on what God has called us to, and how our families react when we hear that calling from God. Mary and Joseph were frantically looking for Jesus, and when they found him in the Temple, sitting among the rabbis, their first thought wasn’t, “Oh, we’re so proud of him. He’s having a great conversation with these learned men and holding his own. He’s going to be a great rabbi himself one day.” No, their first thought is, “Where in the world have you been? We’ve been worried sick about you! Didn’t you think about us at all?” This is a natural reaction for parents to have, and it shows us that Joseph and Mary were human beings, just like good human parents are from generation to generation. What gives me pause, though, is how they react to what Jesus says. I want you to imagine Jesus responding to his parents with the tone of voice that a typical 12-year-old today would use with his or her parents coming to collect him or her from a friend’s house. “Mom, Dad, you’re embarrassing me. I’m not ready to go yet. How could you not know I had to be here? Don’t you know me at all?” If I had mouthed off like that to my parents, especially after they’d been searching for me for three days, it would have taken great restraint on my parents’ part not to smack me in front of everyone, and I probably would have been grounded for the rest of my life. But Mary and Joseph don’t respond as typical parents would. They were taken aback by what Jesus said, and they didn’t understand. But Jesus, with a typical tween sigh and a shrug of his shoulders, went with them back to Nazareth. And Mary treasured all of these things in her heart. So, perhaps after the initial scolding, when she had time to think about it, she remembered that she was dealing with God’s Son as well as her own, and wondered what, exactly, God was calling Jesus to do, and how this episode would relate to how Jesus was going to be the Savior.
What is God calling us to do? And do we always know it right away? My own call story is not as clearly written as Jesus’ call seems to be. At 12 years old, I had realized that my previous desire to be an astronomer would have involved a lot of science that I simply wasn’t interested in, and a new desire to be either a historian or a translator was developing, as I was beginning to study German and I was learning more about history. I enjoyed going to worship on Sunday mornings, but being a pastor one day was probably the furthest thing from my mind. But what I remember about my family is that, no matter what stage I was in, no matter what things I was interested in, they found ways to help me and to encourage me in that calling. For example, when I wanted to be an astronomer, they bought me books on stars and planets, and I think they got me a telescope, too, but none of us could figure out how to make it work! When that desire faded and I started to express different interests, they found ways to support me in those interests. And when, finally, as an adult, I heard God calling me into the ordained ministry, they have supported me in this calling as well.
As Lutherans, we have a theology that says that God has called each one of us into a vocation meant for each one of us to serve our neighbor who is in need. Martin Luther, who lived in a time when those who were called to religious vocations, such as priests, monks, and nuns, were regarded as being holier than the “ordinary” people, lifted up the vocations of everyone as vitally important to serving one another. Therefore, for the parents and grandparents here today, I offer this: support your children and grandchildren as they explore different things that interest them. Encourage them to follow their interests, because you never know where God might be leading them. If they are searching for something, suggest different vocations that they might explore.
And in the Christian church, family is more than just your family at home. If you are in the habit of reading my columns in the monthly newsletter, I always begin by saying, “Dear family of Hope”. I regard the congregation as an extended family, and if we are, indeed, an extended family, then we also have the privilege and responsibility of encouraging the children in our midst as they seek out ways to serve God and to serve one another. I have told several of you recently that, in my wildest dreams, I would never have imagined that we would have a children’s choir here leading worship. But because several members of this congregation noticed that the kids enjoyed singing, they began to encourage that vocation in them and to teach them the liturgy that we as a congregation sing. And we have now had a few times where we hear the children’s joyful voices encouraging us to sing out as well. Praise God for the Holy Spirit working in our midst, in ways that we never would have imagined! And thanks to the children, as well, for all of the hard work that they put in to learning how to sing.
It’s not always easy to let our children go to follow where God is calling them, as it has been with our children’s choir, Hopeful Encore. Sometimes God is calling them to places where they might be in danger. Sometimes the way is strewn with temptations that they will fall prey to. Sometimes the way will twist and turn, and those of us watching will just have no idea what God has in mind for them. Loving children, and even adults, in our midst, is not always easy. But sometimes, we are simply being asked to give our loved ones over into God’s care and trust that God knows what he has in mind for them. That’s ultimately what Mary and Joseph did with Jesus. And although, as the prophet Simeon predicted, a sword did pierce Mary’s heart, ultimately she bore witness to her Son being resurrected from the dead and saving all of humankind. Frederick Buechner wrote, “Vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.” Jesus’ greatest passion—loving us—did indeed meet our greatest need—our need to be saved. What is our greatest passion in life? And how will we encourage one another to follow that passion in order to meet the world’s greatest need? And will we be able to do it, even when that vocation leads us into places we would rather not see one another go, or go ourselves? May we ever be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit as we serve one another and serve God in this life. Amen.