May the word of Christ dwell in us richly as we enter-into the story of his childhood. It is a story of growing in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and with human beings (v 52), who are also human becomings, in that we grow into ourselves. And at first glance, it may appear that Jesus’ parents do not appear in a good light, but we need to look again. This story reveals to us that God made a very good decision when he chose to give away his only begotten son to these particular parents. And, following God’s example, choosing to give away those we love is the only way in which they – and we – will grow to maturity, from the total dependency of babies to the mutual dependency of adults.
The first thing that Jesus’ parents give him away to is the story of their people, their enacted tradition, and in particular the enacted story of the Passover. This is the story of a God who comes to set his people free. And freedom from external oppression is only the beginning. At Mount Sinai, God invites his people into a conversation about being truly free – and they are terrified; for the thought of freedom is terrifying.
The conversation begins with the Ten Words: God comes as a friend – as he was known in Eden – in the hope that the people might experience freedom from anything or one who would set themselves over them to oppress them; might live in freedom even from their own conceptions of God, which are always inadequate, and, though necessary, when we hold them too tightly become idols; might live in freedom from invoking God to ensnare others; might live in freedom from the tyranny of endless work; might live in the freedom of belonging to others: might live in freedom from setting ourselves over others in judgement or envy or possession or greed or accusation or ingratitude.
This is the story Jesus’ parents had given him away to. It necessarily comes to us first as law, as rules, because children need a framework: need to know security in a big world. That is why it is tragic when parents say, “I’m not going to bring my child up within a particular tradition; they can decide for themselves when they are older.”: without a framework to give us security, a framework to kick against in time, we are overwhelmed by freedom and end up, ironically, enslaved. But these words are an invitation to listen to God as a friend, and so the truly free person is not enslaved by rules. This freedom is what the Pharisees were so afraid of, protecting the words with other rules; upset that Jesus’ disciples did the work of plucking and ‘milling’ grain on a Sabbath, while Jesus knew that the Sabbath word is given as an invitation to freedom, not another form of slavery.
The other thing Jesus’ parents gave him away to was wider company, relatives and friends. That is why they were, at first, and for a whole day, unaware that he was not with them. Part of being a parent is coming to several points where you have to share this precious gift you have been given: with their choice of friends, you may or may not approve of; perhaps with their choice of a life-partner you may or may not approve of...Even before that, part of being a parent is recognising that we have been given this gift for the very purpose of giving it away, by degrees, in order to become themselves; of recognising that, after the pattern of the Trinity, family love was never meant to be self-contained: and that, in part, is why one of the first things we do for our children is choose godparents, a first step – along with relatives – into wider community.
This being given away to others is a necessary part of becoming ourselves, of growing into maturity: and the fear we have over that in our own society is one of the most tragic consequences of our having forgotten how to receive other peoples’ children: that out of right concern that no child should be abused in certain ways, all children are abused in another. The church needs to be a wider community that models trust and enables freedom.
Jesus, having been raised in this way – given away – has come to a moment when he can give himself away: can stay behind in his Father’s house, without his parents, relatives and friends.
Now we come into the present story. Jesus’ parents have travelled away from Jerusalem a day’s journey. As their company sets up camp for the night, they discover that Jesus is not among them – has not been among them: everyone has assumed that he was with someone else. And so they head back to Jerusalem. Most likely, they are travelling along the road between Jerusalem and Jericho: the steep road they have gone down by day in company, they now climb up alone in darkness: a long and difficult journey. Who knows what hour of the night they reached Jerusalem; perhaps the city gates were locked and they could not enter; perhaps they camped at the foot of the Mount of Olives, where within a few years so many Passover pilgrims would camp; perhaps even in the Garden of Gethsemane, a camp-site that had become habitual to Jesus by his adulthood.
Perhaps, as they made their way, their thoughts returned to a decade earlier when, with their toddler, they had fled along the Negev road to Egypt by night: to a time when they had had to give themselves and their son away, into the hands of God, into the hands of strangers, to be kept safe. After three days of searching, they will be – increasingly – anxious. But perhaps the night holds them in creative tension, between chaos and trust: that night we always find ourselves in when we give someone we love away, when we give ourselves away, not knowing what will become of us, but knowing the One who holds us (in the words of the Doctor, “I never know how, I only know who.” Dr Who Christmas Special 2012).
The night stretches out over three days. We might recall the three days Jonah spent inside the big fish. We will recall – as Mary might, with much later hindsight – the three days between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Three days symbolise God at work in the hidden place, forming something new that transforms chaos, that will turn our lament into joy, that will turn loss into gain, defeat into victory, death into life. And as this is going on around Jesus, he is in the eye of the storm.
Mary says, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” The irony is that they have prepared Jesus for this very moment, by faithfully giving him away; and when he gives himself away, they are at a loss. In our culture, that does not honour father and mother, it would be easy to dismiss them: to point out that Joseph is not Jesus’ father, whatever rights he might believe he is entitled to. But that would be to misunderstand the story, to misunderstand God. In this record, we see family honoured: Jesus is their son, son of Mary, son of David’s line; and they have searched for him patiently and carefully for far more years than the days they have searched for him anxiously. And now he is revealed, a little more, to them: but still not yet fully – the process will continue.
Then Jesus returns to Nazareth with them, and was obedient to them. Obedience in Scripture does not mean what it means today, doing what you are told by someone over you. It means to listen attentively. To listen, and ask questions; to enter into conversation: just as Jesus had done in the temple; just as God had invited his people to do at Mount Sinai...to continue to grow into freedom, learning the spirit of the law, and when to break the letter of the law in order to live as God hopes for his friend.
What, then, is the word of Christ to you through this Gospel – good news! – story; the word you are invited to let dwell within you richly (Colossians 3:16), to make his home more fully in your life?
With Jesus’ parents, is the good news to you an affirmation that you have done a better job of giving someone you love away than you have realised; that God does not regret his choosing you for that task? Or perhaps the good news to you is that word that calms our anxious fear: love, the love of our heavenly Father for the one you have given away into his care.
With Jesus, the good news to you may be an invitation to respond to the freedom God created you to live in, more fully than you have done up till now – regardless of how young or old you are, how much or little freedom you already know.
Whatever the word, it is Jesus’ intention that you, like him, should grow in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and with other people. So welcome his word to you, and, like his mother, treasure it within your heart.