Articles and thoughts by Steve Green.
Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.
Twelve years had passed since the angels burst upon a Bethlehem hillside with the announcement that Immensity imprisoned in a virgin’s womb had been born, that the Most High had come to be Immanuel, God with us. For such an earth shattering beginning, the Biblical silence about Jesus’ childhood leaves us wanting some glimpse into his early years. The first one we get is at age 12.
The circumstances surrounding his birth must have still raised eyebrows and been the subject of whispered speculation. Perhaps Mary and Joseph had settled quietly in Nazareth, blending into the landscape, busying themselves with the common rigors of everyday life. On quiet evenings however, can’t you imagine that their conversation turned to recount the events that they alone shared? No one else could relate to what had so overwhelmed their hearts.
The angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary was enough set her apart for life. Do you know of anyone who has talked with Gabriel? What did he look like? Did he just appear in her home? Wasn’t she terrified? And then the unimaginable words: The Most High would overshadow her and she would conceive having never had physical intimacy with a man. Sure enough, within weeks her body began to show the signs of pregnancy. A missed period, morning sickness, mood swings. The whole thing was more than Joseph could endure. Being a noble and good man, he planned to call the engagement off quietly so as not to bring Mary’s sin into the spotlight. He loved her. The punishment required by law for her sexual promiscuity would crush his heart. He must have wrestled with the absurdity of Mary’s excuse and wondered why she would hold so tenaciously to the angel story. She had always been truthful in the past. What possibly could have come over her? Then the same angel appeared to Joseph and confirmed all that Mary had said. Who would have dreamed up this story: God doing the unheard of, choosing a poor, obscure and simple woman through whom to reveal His son? It is almost more than the mind could bear.
The moment of Jesus’ birth was also stunning. Forced to travel to Bethlehem for the census, Mary felt the contractions of labor just as they entered the city. Because of the unusual number of visitors, there was no room in the inn, but at the suggestion of the innkeeper they made their way to a rock-hewn cattle refuge for the night. Was this really the place for the Son of God to be born? Was this part of the plan? Could the earth tolerate such a wrong? Wouldn’t there be some heavenly revolt to this savage neglect? Yet shepherds arrived, still trembling and told of an angelic visitation. Learned men from the east came and told of a star. And the rest of the world went on as if nothing unusual had happened.
Now twelve years later, a trip to Jerusalem was a customary occurrence. Three times a year in keeping with the commandment, Joseph had made the sixty mile pilgrimage. Perhaps Jesus had accompanied him on some of those trips. Although Mary was not required to attend the other feasts, she made this most important journey to celebrate the Passover. If they could travel 20 miles a day, the trip would take three days. Whether they stayed just for the Passover itself or for the 7-day feast that followed, we don’t know. What we do know is that after participating in the Passover remembrance, Mary and Joseph headed back to Nazareth and had already traveled one day before they realized that Jesus was not in their company. They assumed that he was with some others in their group. It was probably not unusual for friends and family to welcome the company of such a good child. But throughout the day his lingering absence nagged at Mary’s heart and her worried glances turned to anxious searching. He was no where to be found. Already some twenty miles from Jerusalem, they were forced to camp for the night and return the next day to look for him. Can you imagine their fright? Does a mother sleep when the whereabouts of her child are not known? Doesn’t the mind offer all kinds of ghastly visions when we are suspended in anxious waiting? When they finally arrived in Jerusalem they set about retracing their steps. Where does one start? Thousands of visitors in makeshift dwellings crowding the streets trick the mind into chasing distant sightings of a coat or a particular stride. They spent the whole day looking and finally found him… in the Temple. Of course! That’s where they should have looked first.
Is the young Jesus perturbed? Is he surprised and ashamed at being caught in an irresponsible scheme? Does he blush to see them? No. He is in the very room where classes and discussions take place among the doctors of theology and religion. He is sitting among them, as one engaged in their discourse, not standing to be instructed as a student. Can you imagine the stir he has caused? He has been there for three days and news has spread rapidly. Maybe the most prominent theologians are present, Gamaliel the great teacher of Paul, or Hillel, one of the most revered teachers with a large following. Perhaps even Shammai, Jonathan, Simeon or possibly Nicodemus.
Can you see it now? Joseph and Mary approach, out of breath, garments trailing behind them and their eyes wild with a mixture of anger, shock and fear as they rush in and scan the room. There he is! Sitting in rapt attention, engaged in deep discussion just as if it was the most natural thing in the world and the past three days had been simply the routine. They watch long enough to take in the whole scene. These scholars were equally engrossed in the discussion with Jesus. He was “hearing”, listening attentively to every word, lost in time, as his heart and soul drank in the deep things of God. He was “asking questions” with a thirst for truth greater than any they had seen. He was answering them with surprising and satisfactory words. His wisdom and understanding appeared in the questions that he asked as much as in the answers he gave, so that all that heard him were astonished. They had never heard one so young; not even any of their greatest teachers speak with the understanding he displayed. . The word astonished (existanto de) indicates that they were amazed, overwhelmed, bewildered, and wondered at His understanding.
Did Mary and Joseph interrupt? Did not their anger and frustration turn to awe and marvel? Is it possible they felt a strange detachment from Jesus, realizing that he was so “other” than they? Did they clear their throats or move around to his sight line? Eventually they took him aside and Mary gushed the question that had been building in her mind for three days, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” Now, read these next words slowly. No one else has ever said anything like. “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be about my Father’s business?” This is where He was at home, breathing His own proper air. Ordinary worshipers may be content to stay the required length of the feast and then leave, but not him. His words convey a gentle rebuke. “Didn’t you know?” Here we get a glimpse into the private years in Nazareth. In saying that they should have known, he must have given them ground to know. He was not acting inconsistently or out of character. Mary tells him of the sorrow with which she and his father had searched for him. He speaks of no father but one, the One he has been with all this time.
The religious scholars were not the only ones astounded at his wisdom and understanding. Mary and Joseph knew him better than anyone else and had a history of astonishment with him. Yet once again, as they find him in the Temple and listen to him interact with the most learned scholars of Jerusalem, they too are overcome with amazement and wonder, bewilderment and awe. They are amazed at Jesus.
Lord Jesus, I have grown familiar with the gospel narratives and stories, but have lost the astonished reverence, that mysterious mingling of love and fear that marks those who have frequent and real encounters with you. Open the eyes of my heart to truly see you, not for emotional satisfaction or reassuring comfort, but for repentance, adoration and love.
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