A. Jesus the trouble maker
1. The narratives of Jesus first twelve years highlight how much trouble he caused: The travel to Bethlehem because that is where he was supposed to be born; the travel to Egypt because he has to replay the narrative of the Exodus; the need to live in the not so desirable city of Nazareth because it wasn’t safe for him in Bethlehem. In today’s gospel, Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, requiring of his parents two additional days journeys on foot.
2. Our Christmas and Epiphany devotion tends to focus on the “hominess” of the Incarnation. God is with us to comfort us and sanctify life in the body. This is a true and valid emphasis. Yet, there is a danger of what we might call “domestication.” When we domesticate animals, we take them out of the wild and train them so they can live with us and we can be safe with them. When we domesticate the Incarnation, we take the teeth out of Jesus so that he will comfort us but never bite.
3. This is why C. S. Lewis emphasized that Aslan, who represents Jesus in the Chronicles of Narnia, was “not a tame lion.” He was “good but not safe.” If we are honest in our reading of the New Testament we have to conclude that Jesus likes to stir the pot. He is not particularly “nice” as we understand that word. He is not at all afraid to confront people and do things that are inconvenient. His presence requires people to change the way they think and act.
4. Thus, at age twelve, Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem after the Passover celebration while the caravan from Nazareth returned home. A day’s journey may have been around fifteen miles, give or take a few. The tarrying of Jesus in Jerusalem, without parental consultation, required of May and Joseph a fifteen miles journey back to Jerusalem and another fifteen mile trip back to the caravan–it is sort of like walking from here to Anaheim Stadium and back. Two things are notable beyond that. Mary was very angry. And Jesus was completely unapologetic. Any problem with his actions, Jesus made clear, was a failure of Mary and Joseph to understand what God was doing.
B. Jesus the trouble maker in our lives
1. This highlights for us another aspect of what it means to have God with us. There is, to be sure, the grace of forgiveness, the propitious way God works in all things in our lives and the comfort we experience in the communion of the saints. But these are all experienced in the context of arduous spiritual journeys, strange plot shifts and inconvenient moments when Jesus doesn’t act as we expect him to act.
2. The inconvenient actions of Jesus offend some people.
a. I remember an Episcopalian woman in a church where I started my ministry. She had trouble believing that Jesus was God because of his behavior in this story. I mean, How can he do that to his mother? She wanted a nice Jesus who conformed to her nice religious sensibilities and expectations.
b. A more humorous example of domestication is found in a character played by the actor Will Farrell in a movie called “Talladega Nights.” He routinely addressed his prayer before eating to the baby Jesus. When someone objected that Jesus had in fact become was a grown man, he prayed all the more fervently to “eight pound six ounce baby Jesus.” We often prefer the tame and manageable infant Jesus to the disruptive grown up version.
3. Committed Christians tame Jesus subconsciously. It is not that we expect life to be all roses or that we haven’t read the stories of conflict in the Bible. It is rather that life goes smoothly for an extended period of time so that we get used to God’s consistent and convenient blessings. Then some unexpected thing happens and it upsets us. We have become comfortable with our ease and tranquility so that it feels like God is singling us out for discomfort. This is the pattern in the gospel story. Jesus is twelve years old. It is likely that very few inconvenient instances like this occurred in the time between the narratives about his early childhood and this story. Mary and Joseph had come to expect Jesus to act in his ordinary way, which means that he would basically do what he was supposed to do. That is why this incident so upset them.
4. This story reminds us that the Son of God did not become man merely to insure our domestic tranquility. The purpose of the Incarnation is to redeem the world. The presence of the Son of God will always inevitably create tension and conflict. He will always, eventually, have to be about his Father’s business in some new way that will cause us discomfort. We won’t always understand it and we may at times even get frustrated, angry or disappointed. But Jesus will be unapologetic. The lessons will be ours to learn.
C. Why this story fits in Epiphany
1. The season of Epiphany focuses on the ways that Jesus in revealed as the Son of God–to the Magi by a star, in the waters of his baptism, and at the wedding in Cana, to name a few stories. The punch line in today’s gospel highlights this theme of revelation. “Didn’t you know that I must be about my Father’s business?’ In other word, I am the Son of God, and I must obey my Father. His will trumps yours.
2. This highlights a significant truth about the ways God reveals himself. Not all epiphanies are glorious. The event that reveals Jesus to us in new ways may not always feel so good. We may wonder why God feels distant from us, but he may be closer than we think. He just isn’t present in our story in the way we want or in a way that makes us comfortable. Jesus is present with us to save us and make us holy. This means that his presence and actions will not always make us happy.
3 Mary didn’t understand what happened and she was not happy about it. But St. Luke tells us that Mary “pondered all these things in her heart.” She is the example for us. When we don’t understand or like what God is doing, it is our vocation to reflect and meditate upon his work in our lives–to ponder all these things in our hearts. When we follow the example of Mary and contemplate the mysterious and inconvenient actions of God through eyes of faith over time, what begins as a source of anger and frustration will, eventually, become an new epiphany.