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"The Twelve-Year-Old in All of Us" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer

January 14, 2024Date

Luke 2: 41-52


I’d like for us to begin this morning by having you think back to when you were 12 years old. You’d likely have been in 6th or 7th grade, likely growing like a weed, and just about to make the transition from childhood to teenager. Is that an age you’d be willing to relive?


If you’re a parent think back to when your children were 12. Was that a challenging age to be a parent? I ask because I believe it was around this age that my mother said she would have happily given me away to the circus...for free. 


Our twelfth year of life is one of incredible brain development. It’s around this age the ability to detect sarcasm develops, It’s also around this age that social structures get trickier to navigate. At 12 kids are ready to hold and manipulate complex ideas in their minds and they begin to use language functionally for the first time. This means they can adjust their word choices and level of sophistication to suit their context, all the while discovering a greater desire for privacy and independence from their parents.


            Around the age of 12 tremendous brain growth happens in both the white and grey matter of the brain, which is some of the biggest brain development to take place at any point in the human life span. And yet with all of this development, all the expansions in communication abilities and critical thinking 12-year-olds, whether male or female are also going through puberty which makes being 12 hard! 


This is why  I suspect most of us wouldn’t choose to be 12 or parent a 12-year-old ever again! But at least a kid of 12 can blame puberty and brain development for their poor communication skills and occasional mood swings. What can those of us who’re old, and therefore supposed to know better, blame?


            A quick Amazon search proves that 12-year-olds aren’t the only ones who struggle with communication as thousands of books are available about communication in every possible situation. From the simple and straightforward: The Art of Communication, to the relationship based: Love is a Verb: 30 Days to Improving Your Relationship, to something for us introverts: Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, to one for the pet owner trying to know their animal better: The Language of Miracles: A Celebrated Psychic Teaches You to Talk to Animals.


Silly or not, these books beg an important question: why do we struggle so much to communicate? To tell each other how we’re feeling without feeling ashamed if we’re struggling. To share thoughts and opinions that differ without tuning each other out. In the face of a new year that has to be better than the last one can we be people who’re willing to lead with kindness and empathy?


            Because we’re all guilty of saying hurtful things out of anger or stress or because we’re not thinking. We get busy and can be thoughtless of the needs of those around us. 2020 certainly made it easier for us to be shortsighted, thinking only of ourselves and the needs of our families. And there are times in which all of us simply don’t think, don’t communicate, don’t consult others, we just do. 


            This is exactly how Jesus acts in this morning’s story from Luke. Following directly on the heels of the Nativity Story, these are the only verses in any of the Gospels that tell us about Jesus as a kid. I love this story in part because Mary is considered important enough by Luke to be one of the two people who speak, despite the presence of so many men. But mostly I love this story because Jesus is so completely 12 years old here. I love stories that remind us of Jesus’ humanity because they make him more relatable.


            Luke specifically uses Jesus’ age in this passage not only to be precise with his timeline but also because this is an important age. As commentator Kyle Schiefelbein-Guerrero explains, “At [this] age Jesus is still considered a “child” since he [is] not... expected to fully embrace his ancestral traditions; that [will] happen when he turned 13.” So this story “serves as a bridge between the infancy narrative and Jesus’ upcoming ministry, which will start with his...encounter with the Jordan River.” We should also be mindful that “for Luke the number “12” is important as a continuation of God’s revelation—the 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 apostles, replacing Judas to maintain 12 apostles.”


Luke tells us Jesus and his family have been in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. And “while all male Jews within a 20-mile radius were required to [be in Jerusalem], neither woman nor children were obligated to do so.” That means Luke’s words about Jesus traveling with his parents not only emphasize the family nature of this annual trip but also “their piety and faithfulness.”


            After the Passover celebration Mary and Joseph begin the trip home, only to discover Jesus is not with them. Some commentators question how Mary and Joseph could leave Jesus behind, saying they were careless or even negligent. Other commentators point out that families usually traveled in caravans, sharing the childcare responsibilities. Both points have merit, but what’s more important is that Luke doesn’t make much issue of the incident. From what we can read in the text, there’s “nothing particularly extraordinary about [Mary and Joseph] traveling a whole day without knowing where Jesus was. The real focus in Luke’s story is the contrast between Mary and Joseph’s obvious fear and anxiety and Jesus’ apparent lack of concern.


            When they find him in the Temple, Mary says to Jesus, Son, why have You treated us this way? Listen, Your father and I have been sick with worry for the last three days, wondering where You were, looking everywhere for You.” Though a more measured response than I would have received in this situation, Mary’s words make it clear that Jesus has not been acting the way she thinks he should. She’s disappointed, feels disrespected, and frustrated. Make no mistake, no matter how calm she may sound this is a mother chiding her “thoughtless son for not acting properly toward his family.”


            This is true from what we can see in this story. Jesus didn’t think about his family, though it’s clear his decision to stay behind at the Temple was intentional. He didn’t consider his safety, his parents’ concern, or what the consequences of his choices might be – and if he did Luke doesn’t tell us about it. What we can see is how 12-year-old Jesus is here; capable of complex decision-making but with sporadic critical thinking – the one who was born “the divine Christ child” is fully human in this moment.


            You can even hear the pre-teen sass in Jesus’ response to Mary, “Why did you need to look for Me? Didn’t you know that I must be working for My Father?” And it would be easy to read Jesus’ response in exactly that way; as a sassy, smart-alecky pre-teen. Parents, you all know how that voice sounds. But this is where the story changes. This is where we have to remind ourselves that just as Jesus was fully human, he was also fully divine. Just as the human part of him has forgotten to be nice and consider his parents’ feelings, the divine part of him has responded wholeheartedly, and perhaps for the first time, to the calling of his heavenly father.


            In a complex tangle of humanity and divinity Jesus responds to his mother not with sass or sarcasm, but with simple surprise, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” With these words we can see the underlying tension in this story; Jesus has answered his father’s call, but it’s not the flesh and blood father standing before him in the Temple. Instead, by staying behind, Jesus has responded to his Heavenly Parent and in doing so has dipped his toes into the role he’ll take on as an adult.


            Consider the foreshadowing here; this is not the last time Jesus will answer questions from the teachers of the law. Neither is it the last time he’ll be in the Temple. In this story, we get to see Jesus as he begins his journey into adulthood. He’s “coming to an awareness of his role in the world” which is, of course, a normal part of a 12-year-old’s development. But as we know, Jesus’ future will be unlike any other 12-year-old. The future that was promised to Mary before Jesus’ birth is taking shape for the first time here. Despite his age, despite his ability or inability to be good, despite his own level of understanding, Jesus has –even here, even at 12 – a higher calling he must serve.


            But did you notice how Luke ends this story? Verse 51 says, “And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them.” That means that this story doesn’t end with Jesus’ newfound awareness of his calling as the Son of God. Although we don’t have any other stories from his childhood, we know the man Jesus becomes. He didn’t have this experience in the Temple and automatically begin healing lepers and preaching to crowds of followers. No, instead like a normal 12-year-old, Jesus is taken home by his relieved parents to finish growing up. While his awareness of his calling is sparked here, Jesus is given the time and opportunity to be raised by parents who love him and who wouldn’t stop looking until they found him.


            Divine or not, I’m convinced that level of love and concern impacted Jesus and helped form him into the man and therefore the Savior he became. God didn’t send a grown man, ready to save the world. God sent an infant, completely dependent on others, who became a preteen who didn’t always remember to be nice, then a teenager who might have struggled to learn his father’s carpentry trade, and who finally grew into an adult. An adult who got tired, had a temper, loved others unconditionally, showed compassion, could be tough as nails, and stood for those who wouldn’t stand for him. 


Though the spark of his calling is clearly present here at 12, through the ending of this story we can see that God, understanding Jesus’ humanity, does not call him to his full purpose too early, and does not expect too much from Jesus too soon. Instead, God lets the pieces come together as they are needed to create this unique individual we know as Jesus.


The good news for us this morning is that God knows each of us just as well as God knows Jesus. Head to foot, God knows we’re fully, and only, human. God knows that most of the time we struggle to be nice – not because we’re struggling to understand our Messianic identities – but rather because we’re more worried about ourselves than others. And God knows that despite most of us being older than 12, we can be as surly and sarcastic as any preteen.


And yet God loves us! Loves us so much that God continues to call us, continues to look for us, and continues to want a deeper relationship with us. And this doesn’t just happen once. No, God’s calling and desire to be the source from which we live our lives is ongoing. Constantly developing and evolving as we grow into the people God created us to be.


            While we all carry our 12-year-old selves with us no matter how old we get, God loves us so much that each day is an opportunity to think before we speak, to care about others more than ourselves, to be more thoughtful toward those we love, to show strangers simple kindness. Then when those things get too hard and that inner 12-year-old is winning the battle, God gives us places like this where we can come and be surrounded by people who’re also struggling. Where we can be supported by an extended family who’s working to hear and follow God’s calling. In this place, with these people, and through the love of a Godly parent who never stops looking for us, we all have the chance to finish growing up.

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