Incarnation, Phase Two (been there)
|"Mary finding Jesus" from Franco Zeffirelli's movie, Jesus of Nazareth|
So you may be wondering what happens between the time the little baby Jesus arrives in the manger, and when he is a full-fledged, fully-grown Messiah, teaching and healing, all self-sufficient and confident?
Well, this happens.
12 year old Jesus gets left behind by his parents.
On an annual road trip with his family. And not accidentally left at a rest stop when the caravan pulled away. But apparently deciding suddenly that he had a different agenda, that he was on a different journey from his friends and relatives, and simply bowing out of the group thing.
And perhaps he figured it would be better to ask forgiveness than permission – mom would NEVER let me stay behind and hang out in the temple! – or perhaps he didn’t think of his parents at all.
But no matter which way you slice it, nobody comes out looking great here.
How could you lose the Messiah?
I give you one job… the most important job in all the earth, and you mess it up?
How long had it taken Mary to get over the scandal of the whole “pregnant by the Holy Spirit” debacle, and now, when she seems to have become a respectable parent doing a pretty decent job of it, now this?
And Jesus, what the heck are you thinking? Because you are not thinking of your parents.
“Son, how could you do this to your father and me?”
“I wasn’t doing anything TO you. Why were you searching for me anyway? Wouldn’t you know I would be in my father’s house doing my father’s business?”
Cheeky. There is so much sass in this answer I don’t even know where to begin.
How should they have known that, Jesus?
Should they have known that because they are your parents, and parents know everything?
Should they have read your mind, or held the bigger picture at all times?
What should THEY have done differently, here, Jesus?
Has it dawned on you yet that you that while you were in a euphoric state of self-discovery and growth and amazing learning and getting all kinds of accolades for your wisdom, your parents were frantic and sobbing and enlisting the help of everyone they knew and praying desperate, apologetic prayers to God for losing the Messiah of the world, or at the very least, desperate, apologetic prayers to God for losing their beloved son?
Are you looking your relieved and confused mom in the eye when you answer back?
Didn’t you know I would be in my father’s house?
Who’s your daddy, Jesus?
Because you just told your adopted daddy, who has loved you from the day you were born, and raised you as your father, that he has no claim on you; you just threw the “you’re not my real Dad” card in his face.
Did Joseph flinch? Did Jesus notice?
So here is my question.
Why does Luke decide that of all the childhood experiences, all the wonderful memories and tales that could be told that would give a glimpse of God as a child, of all the things the church and the followers of Christ would need to know about Jesus in his early years, that might tell us something of his character and person, that this is the ONE story to tell from his childhood? Why is this the one that’s got to be in there?
When I was in seminary I took a preaching class called “Making Doctrine Live.” We were assigned a Christian doctrine and a scripture text - mine were the divinity and humanity of Christ, and the passage from Luke when Jesus calmed the storm. I wrestled for hours upon hours with that text, and - for days I read commentaries and theology books, and tried to wrap my head around the doctrine. I strove to understand how Jesus could be both divine and human and then agonized over how to talk about it. In frustration, the day before I was to preach the text for my class, I sat down and began writing, and a letter came out. It was a letter to a friend, as though I was in the boat with Jesus the night he calmed the storm. It was a letter that poured out my own frustration – that what I was seeing was true, before my eyes, but I could not explain it, could not even understand it, and yet it compelled me, and moved me to follow.
And I saw for the first time how the gospel writers revealed deep and poignant truth about God through story – that sometimes the only way to talk about something that is bigger than human words and more true than human concepts, is through story. In telling the story of God-with-us, we resonate deeply in our being - beyond what our mind can grasp or our theology spell out - with the inconceivable and relentless love of God.
“And the boy Jesus increases in wisdom and years, and in the favor of God and people.” It’s a journey, growth is, we don’t come out knowing it all, doing life and relationships right, right from the get go, apparently, any of us. Not even God.
I sometimes think there might be no worse feeling in all the world than that of hurting the people you love. The worse you hurt them the worse the feeling. And when it happens by accident, because you are not thinking of them and are thinking only of yourself, when your thoughtless words or selfish actions tear down someone you love and respect, and you’ve done something you can’t take back and can’t make right, what a horrible feeling it can be.
And it gives me hope, actually, to imagine that in the very heart of God, the heart that has been broken again and again by the children of God’s betrayal and stupidity, by a world filled with selfish and thoughtless actions and words that divide and destroy, that in that heart is now the other experience, the other side. You have hurt those who love you more than anything on earth. You maybe didn’t mean to, but you are responsible for your choices. And you caused them pain and suffering. That was your fault. The breakdown here, the division here; you caused that.
If we thought the incarnation got LESS messy as it went along, we thought wrong. The mess goes all the way through. Every new stage is filled with new mess. And what to do with a Jesus who seems to show a growing self-awareness, an awakening sense of who he is, his own wrestling to make sense of it all?
And what about his parents? Who thought they just about got their heads around this incarnation thing when he was little, but were not prepared for this new, tall, argumentative Jesus, this too-big-for-his-britches tween, who is not quite a man but no longer a boy?
And that thing that starts the second your baby is born, that knowledge that hovers that you are working yourself out of a job, that one day you have to let them go, that every new stage, every new word and step and friend and hobby and discovery is exhilarating and a tiny bit heart-breaking because it takes them into themselves and into the world and out of your hands, and it is both as it should be and completely unnerving- that whole thing is hard enough.
But when you’ve had glimpses and full face views of what is in store for this child, when you are told at his christening that a sword will pierce your soul because he will divide nations, when celestial beings announce his birth and strangers travel from the ends of the earth to lay eyes on him and the king of your land wants him dead and you’ve lived in exile and returned – you’ve had foreshadowed to you all along that his future is out of your control, out of your imagination, and out of your hands, but all along that has been SO FAR OFF, and he’s just been your baby, your kid, your delight, and you’ve done a pretty good job of giving him gradually more independence and respect, you let him travel with the big kids instead of by your side, on the annual family trip, after all, and then this happens.
But also, what was that feeling - when you saw him in the temple, before he saw you, and after the relief and the anger rushed up inside you but just before you rushed up to him- what was that feeling that made you gasp and hold your breath when you watched him, answering the great teachers, his face alight, his hands animated, and their eyes riveted and bodies still, as they took him in with respect and wonder? Had you ever seen your boy like this before? With a look at what he might be as a man? With a glimpse of how he might be in the world as a leader? Was there pride or wonder of your own? Or was it sheer terror?
This is all so close, it really is happening. This is really, really real.
And Jesus, what happened when mom and dad showed up and the bubble burst? Real life floods in and the reverie is broken and you have your oh, sh*t moment when you look at your watch for the first time, (or calendar, as the case may be), and realize how much trouble you must, rightly, be in?
And that embarrassment when you go from feeling so very grown up in the eyes of the those you respect and admire, to being reprimanded by your mommy in front of these great men, and deservedly so. And you condescendingly sass back at your worried sick parents instead of apologizing?
I think the apology is there, by the way. In the way 12 year old boys sometimes apologize. He goes back with them and is obedient, the text reads. Once they are out of the temple he submits to his mother’s hug, and leans into her with his head down, acknowledging her affection and dropping his attitude and letting her brush the hair off his sweaty forehead and ask him when’s the last time he had something to eat.
What is incarnation? What does it really mean, this “God-with-us” thing? Is God all-knowing and outside the fray? Is God moved by human pathos? Is God able to make mistakes? And apologize? And be forgiven? And learn from them?
There is no great doctrinal response. But maybe it doesn’t matter how it all happened, just that it did. Maybe it’s not important to be able to say precisely what it means, the incarnation, how Jesus is God with us, how he could be both a kid and the creator of the universe, how he could be love embodied, and also mess up and hurt his parents. Only that God did. God did it all. For us. With us. Maybe the only way to understand the incarnation is to feel it from the inside, to hear the story of it and see it in our own stories, to live it, like Jesus himself did.
And maybe we can do what Mary does- we can treasure these things in our heart. We can wonder, and let them sink in, and shake our heads in disbelief, and sit for a while in the discomfort and comfort it simultaneously brings, and let the incarnation’s truth seep into all the places in our own lives that need to hear it right now.
And so God, when I let myself treasure and ponder these things, I wonder…
What does it feel like to be on the inside? Is it how you thought it would be, this living thing?
What do you make of puberty? What’s it like getting in arguments with your sisters and brothers? Is it hard to be close to Joseph? Does Mary sometimes drive you crazy or embarrass you in front of your friends?
Do you have high expectations of yourself?
Are you able to forgive easily, or do you find it difficult, like I do, to let go?
Do you wish you looked different, had a different voice or were better at some sport or skill than you are?
How much did your parents tell you growing up about who you were?
How much did you take in, and was this when it first began to dawn on you?
What did it feel like to realize you knew thing, you WERE things?
What did that feel like, when pieces began to connect, when vistas began to open?
Did you always know you were different, from the very start? Or did cousin John recklessly break the news on one of the family trips?
How hard is love, God? It’s hard, isn’t it?
It’s hard to belong to people and be accountable to people and sometimes have no good options and sometimes make the wrong move. And do the work to stay close even if you don’t deserve it and they don’t deserve it and you all really need it.
Is it harder than you thought it would be?
It’s harder than I thought it would be.
It looks easy from the outside, but it’s really not. Love demands all of you and stretches you in ways you didn’t knew you reached.
Do you see the world differently now? Do you love differently now?
Did you ever want out? Did you ever feel trapped, as one of us, and want out?
You really played the long game, didn’t you?
This wasn’t a quickie experiment; you didn’t come as a grown up, to try out this humanity thing, you were in it all the way from the get go. You had to learn it all, go through it all.
And those weren’t throw-away years, were they? Those were essential to shaping you, those were vital to your experience, to your mission, your person, to your God-with-us-ness.
Why haven’t you shared much about those early years with us? Are they too private? Do you want us to know that they were not so different from our own early years?
Once upon a time brilliant and mouthy pre-teen God screwed up and ditched the family trip without asking permission or telling his parents.
Once upon a time the two people charged with raising God from a baby and protecting the incarnation lost the Messiah of the whole world for four days.
Once upon a time the leaders of religion and teachers of wisdom and worshipers of Yahweh saw God before them both incognito and revealed in a skinny, ruddy, well-spoken boy, opening up their minds with his questions and getting in big trouble from his mom.
Once upon a time God said things that were rude and disrespectful to his parents, that hurt them deeply, but also were a totally normal part of pulling away and growing up.
And he kept growing up, kept on learning and becoming, and got better at loving and respecting and gained favor in the eyes of both God and human beings.
And for some reason the story of God-with-us is not complete without this particular part.
May we receive the gift of it, absorb the truth of it, and treasure these things in our heart.