Young Jesus in the Temple

Young Jesus in the Temple December 22, 2009
Jesus Among the Doctors by Éric de Saussure (1968)

I’ve been asked to preach at my home church and former employer, Colonial Church, next Sunday, December 27.  As a good guest preacher (known in the biz as ‘pulpit supply’), I’m using the lectionary text so as to not import everything I want to say to this congregation into my sermon (and Lord knows, there’s a lot I’d like to say!).

In the lectionary, this coming Sunday is known as Christmas 1C, and the Gospel text is Luke 2:41-52, which is the story of Jesus as a 12-year-old hanging out in the Temple for three days.  In the history of art, it’s known as “Jesus Among the Doctors,” and there is a great deal of wonderful art depicting the scene.

I’ll be working the text and prepping my sermon on the 24th (between baking pies), since I don’t have my kids that day, and I’d love to hear what others think about it.

As usual, I’m most interested in the redaction angle on the text — that is, Why is it here? Why only in Luke? Why the only story of Jesus’ youth? Why age 12? What’s its place in the narrative?

So far, I’m most taken with this idea, from Girardian reflections of Gil Baillie,

As the Gospel in miniature, this story from Luke 1-2 tells of a preliminary journey to Jerusalem. It’s a story of going to Jerusalem for the Passover and finding that Jesus isn’t with us anymore. Where is he?

“After three days, they found him in the temple.” It’s a story about the crucifixion and the resurrection. It’s the overture, so that when we get to the journey to Jerusalem, we’ll remember something about it. You come away, Jesus isn’t with you, you’re anxious about it. At the very end of the Gospel, Jesus will tell his disciples to meet him in Jerusalem, from where they will go out to the ends of the earth, the second volume of Luke’s story.

It’s a rehearsal of the Easter story, and it ends on the theme of Luke’s infancy narratives: “Mary treasured all these things in her heart.”

“The Gospel in miniature” — I like that phrase.  A lot.

So, methinks I’ll be focusing on the importance of the Incarnation, and of Jesus’ own blindness to lack of comprehension of his own divinity.  And the struggle that his parents and those around him had with his burgeoning role as messiah.

Your thoughts?

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  • Tony,

    Sounds interesting! I’ve preached on this text before, and the angle I took was a bit more simplistic than the direction you are heading. I keyed off the final part of the narrative where Jesus says something like, didn’t you know I’d be in my father’s house. The sermon was titled, Whose your Daddy? I tried to consider the things we’d do, the passions we’d have if we lived more aware of our Father’s business. And then also highlight the response of those around us when we do them (i.e. you’re acting crazy, how could you act this way). It was essentially a reflection on the meaning of who owns us. How does our identity drive our decisions.

    When our kids catch this passion for their Father in youth group and want to go on missions trips or do other crazy things, do we respond like Mary, “Are you crazy?” or “What were you doing?” or “Don’t you know how worried we’ll be?” Do we tell them to be a little less zealous about their love for God?

    As Moltmann says in Trinity and the Kingdom, the essence of the kingdom is an invitation into a relationship with God, the Father. Through Jesus we learn to say “Abba Father.” This is a great example of Jesus’ early understanding of this.

  • Tony,
    it’s weird. I was just thinking about this text yesterday and why it was there. Actualy, I was wondering where Luke heard the story. Maybe Jesus himself or Mary. Who knows. But I lobe the insight and the paralel to the crucifixion and resurrection.
    I am interested to hear your thoughts on jesus’ “blindness” to who he actually was.

  • Tony, in my little book on Mary I was taken with the word “pondering” by Mary — she was in the midst of a bewildering discovery as her traditions were both confirmed but also disoriented. Jesus is not the Messiah of everyone’s dreams.

  • As someone born and raised in the church, I’ve always noticed that this passage emphasized the importance of religious tradition in the family Jesus was born into. When I first began hanging around evangelicals in college, I felt somewhat out of place not having a “prodigal son” kind of testimony. This passage helped me realize that it’s OK not to have that kind of story. God sent his Son into the world into a traditional Jewish family that went to Jerusalem at Passover because it was their custom. The fact that God would choose such a context for his Son is affirming to me. Granted, Jesus will also challenge his religious tradition, and even begins to do so in this passage, but the fact that his starting point is in a pious family has been a comfort for me.

  • Ethan Magness

    As I youth minister I usually preached the “Whose your daddy angle” that was mentioned above. IF you want to challenge people to a new life, that is a great and very practical and profound sermon angle.

    Resolve this year to live in such a way that people will ask, “What are you doing, why are you following along with the rest of us?” and you can answer, “I am doing my father’s business.”

    As for why it is in Luke. I am convinced that one of the reasons is to to establish a pattern that continues into Acts of Jesus/Disiciples/Paul confronting the established powers form a point of weakness and confounding them. So I see this as inline with Jesus trials, The Disciples before the Sanhedrin, Paul before Agrippa, and many others.

    This theme flows out of the Magnificat. The people of God in their weakness confounding the wisdom of those in power.

    There is more to say about how this story functions for Luke, but I think that establishing that theme is a key part of its function.

  • Tony,
    Thanks for sharing those thoughts from Baillie, that’s good stuff. I especially like the “gospel in miniature” used for something other than John 3:16, which is how I’ve almost always encountered that phrase.

    As I prepare to preach on this text this week I’m focusing on the mystery & pondering/treasuring angle because we are inviting people to spend time at worship stations either doing lectio divina or drawing/writing, then we’ll ask them to talk with each other about it. We do this kind of thing regularly with our youth gatherings but it is a bit of a stretch for our adult crowd! But the Sunday after Christmas has a low-key atmosphere and is a good time to “get away with” something like that.

    This is getting long, but the redaction questions are interesting too. Some thoughts: one of my commentaries suggests this story could be in Luke as a counter to the apocryphal accounts of Jesus as a boy shaping sparrows out of clay or raising playmates from the dead. Instead of miracle worker, Luke shows Jesus’ greatness from an early age through his wisdom.
    I find it interesting that the story is told through the eyes of Mary & Joseph (esp. Mary). Perhaps Luke got this story from her. Certainly we can all identify with anxious parents. But we can also identify with youthful wanderings.
    I think this story also highlights our inability to fully comprehend Jesus and his message. Even his own mother couldn’t! And that is a necessary check for us (for me!) as we tend to behave as if we have Jesus all figured out.

  • Tony,

    In the worship planning helps I write for The United Methodist Church, I noted the difference between this story and many of the other “young Jesus” stories circulating at the time and later. In those stories, Jesus is a young magician, able to “break the rules” of nature that bind the rest of us. Here, Luke takes pains to tell us Jesus is thoroughly grounded in “the rules” so much so that he can hold his own in extended rabbinic debate for days.

    How did this happen? There can be little question that he was well-instructed at home. That family formation may not account for all of this, byt it acounts for something. That is why his question about why his family wouldn’t have thought to find him aming the scholars isn’t impertinent.

    Pondering is exactly what Christmastide is for.. taking time to take in and reflect intently on the implications of the incarnation for our lives. This is why we don’t spend these weeks on infancy narratives, but move quicly beyond them. And it’s why the Mass for Christmas Day (Christmas 2) uses the opening of John’s gospel rather than any of the birth narratives.

    So I think you’re on a good path… help folks at Colonial seriously ponder al this means… today and in the days ahead.

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards

  • I too find myself as the “guest proclaimer” this Sunday.
    I find myself wrestling with the ending of this text. The scene ends with the apparent tension still in place (not totally sure what to do with this). It just says that Mary (and company) didn’t understand but they all went on their way and she treasured “these things”. I’m left pondering why? Why wasn’t there a great Leave it to Beaver moment before the story is closed out, where beaver wraps things up and states clearly the lessons learned of the day. There is confusion from the mother of the Adolescent (perhaps the closest passage we have for such developmental stage) and a willingness to simply live in the tension. After the very first words of Jesus in Luke Mary is left not knowing all the answers…in a bit of a mess…but goes along with it…and embraces the moment. Perhaps Luke is leading us on to something…making a statement about the kingdom itself. It’s not going to end the way you think….It’s not going to all make logical sense….the Kingdom of God is about the paradoxes of life. Thoughts? Feedback?

  • Ben

    The best insight I ever heard into this verse was from a speaker who linked Luke 2:41-52 with Jer 18:1-4 and weaved a personal narrative about how God shaped his life. What I took away was a new perspective on the role of the father in developing Jesus as he grew, correcting him even and drawing him on his path. Although unstated, I think up until that point I just assumed Jesus sprung from the womb fully aware of who he was and what he was to do.

  • I would love to hear you compare this story to the one on the road to Emmaus at the other end of Jesus’ life story. There, two disciples are sharing their anguish over the three days that have elapsed since Jesus’ death. Jesus meets them and explains how ‘it was necessary that these things had to happen’. Here is another couple, coming back to Jerusalem, finding after three days the Jesus they thought they had lost, and having him explain that ‘it was necessary …’ (the word is the same in Greek). You might call the pair of stories ‘On Finding the Jesus You Thought You’d Lost’. And if that is the message of these two passages, maybe Luke is wanting to tell us, at one level at least, something about his gospel as a whole: maybe he is writing for people who may have some idea of Jesus but find he is more elusive than they had imagined.

    Every time we relax and think we’ve really understood him, he will be up ahead, or perhaps staying behind while we go on without thinking. Discipleship always involves the unexpected.

    [Above are excerpts from Luke for Everyone, by N. T. Wright]

    As to why this story is unique to Luke, it is obviously a “Mary” story. All the “Mary” stories are in Luke, who as a gentile, had no reason not to take testimony from a woman.

  • Oooo. I really like this: [more of Bishop Wright]

    We may want to reflect on whether we have taken Jesus himself for granted; if Mary and Joseph could do it, there is every reason to suppose that we can too. We mustn’t assume he is accompanying us as we go off on our own business. But if and when we sense the lack of his presence, we must be prepared to hunt for him in prayer, in the scriptures, in the sacraments, and not to give up until we find him again.

    We must expect, too, that when we do meet him again he will not say or do what we expect. He must be busy with his father’s work. So must we.

  • Mary


    I am preaching on this text as well. I’m looking at it from the viewpoint of the priests in the temple. I’m being sort of playful and will begin with a first person narrative by one of the priests saying he was afraid he would never meet Jesus – after all it’s been 12 years since they heard the Messiah was born and where is he? Then after the discourse with the young boy in the temple the realization comes that Jesus is in our midst, which is my theme.

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  • Shawn

    Post the audio of the sermon when you get a chance!

  • Good idea to preach on the lectionary. But it seems a shame, just 2 days after Christmas, to already be in Easter. What is it about evangelicals and there fascination with those 3 days, when there are 33 years of Incarnational life to celebrate.

    I have recently been reflecting on Luke 2:41ff as a generational text. (As a youth spirituality writer tony, I’m sure it’s an angle you’ll have considered). I invite teenagers to be 12 and parents to be Mary. And to read it through those eyes. It opens up fascinating dimensions on what it means to grow faith across generations – to let our kids take risks, to entrust them to the tribe, to let them grow beyond our expectations.

    And inevitably this raises human/divine questions. At some point someone will say/think – “oh but Jesus is special/divine.” And so it opens up how much we are willing to explore fully human Jesus.

    peace whatever angle you land on
    steve taylor

  • Robyn Michalove

    I think it’s significant that Jesus is 12, in that in-between stage of boyhood and adulthood (bar mitzvah soon to happen). I am preaching this week as well and going with the places of liminality in our own lives and how that is often the place for spiritual growth. Helps that we have several baptisms that day that connect the liminal space between baptism and death.

  • I’m preaching on this text, as well, and what I’m finding interesting is the possibility that Jesus was blowing the scholars’ minds not because he had all the “right” answers, but because he wasn’t shackled by the chains of the theological education the teachers had received. They had all been taught to think in certain ways, and it took a teenager who hadn’t yet learned to shut up and keep his thoughts to himself to show them that there might be a different way of looking at things. In some ways this is a foreshadowing in the reversal theme that is constant throughout Luke.

  • Jeff Rensch

    Lots of cool themes. We also used this in youth group training as story of teen breaking away from family closure and thinking for himself — like all the kids in church at that age.

  • Dave H

    So many great insights and ideas here. I have nothing to contribute theologically. But I’m struck by something in the dramatic narrative itself.

    There’s a poignancy for me in the symmetry of Jesus’s visits to the Temple.

    His first time in the temple is depicted universally in the art you mentioned as a peaceful event. Jesus is a boy, wise, engaged and at peace.

    His final visit to the temple is a different event completely. As a storyteller, I can’t help wondering if some of the same men who engaged him as a boy were there to witness the turmoil of the cleansing. Were some of them even in on the plot to destroy him?

    Imagining the 21 years between these events reveals that something had gone horribly wrong. The sadness of Jesus’s adult conflict with the institutions of his religion is increased by reminding us at the beginning of the story that it was not always so.

  • JoanieD

    In response to Jim Fisher who posted on December 22, 2009 at 8:52 pm: “All the “Mary” stories are in Luke, who as a gentile, had no reason not to take testimony from a woman.”

    I have wondered sometimes why we don’t have more “Mary” stories in the Gospel of John since we have it that upon Jesus’ crucifixion, Mary went to live with John. He didn’t even include the nativity story. I have read that his Gospel was for the purpose of reinforcing the divinity and mission of Jesus and he knew that people already knew the nativity story.

  • AJ Ochart

    Thank you all for your comments,
    I am also preaching this Sunday (tomorrow), and your thoughts are very helpful. I have been pondering over the way that Jesus was interacting with the Rabbis, the text tells us that he was sitting, and asking them questions. I think there is something significant in the fact that he was sitting, which we miss in our context. Traditionally, Rabbis would teach while sitting, unlike modern teachers/ preachers who stand. The fact that Jesus was sitting with them signifies that they were treating him as an equal. just a thought.
    I also wanted to add/comment on Steve’s post. I like the idea of this as a generational text is great, but why don’t we add the Rabbis/ older generations into the mix. Their role as teachers and spiritual advisers are often overlooked.

  • JoanieD

    AJ…when the passage talks about Jesus asking them questions, do you think he was asking questions to learn from them or do you think he was asking to see what they knew about the scriptures and that he already understood the things they were reading?

    The passage also talks about Jesus “grew in wisdom” so we know that Jesus did learn as he grew up. Personally, I like it that Jesus was as much human as he was divine and he had to learn to read, write, make associations and whatnot. But how amazing it must have been for him to realize that the scriptures were leading to HIM!

  • JoanieD

    I looked at some of those paintings of Jesus among the doctors. I don’t see any that look like what I would envision it may have looked like. Does anyone know of a painting that has more “realism” to it?

  • Robert Hamel

    Thanks for the rabbinic reflecting! Did you ever stop to think that what we are doing here has much in common with the nature of the three days of “What shall we call it?” – teaching/learning/talking/listening/questioning/questing/debating/discerning that Jesus and the priest engaged in. It has always been true that God’s Spirit has taught me within a community of scholars, whether other clergy, laity, seminarians, students or 80 year old sunday school teachers.
    I am very moved by many of your thoughts;
    1) I too was a child of the church who’s parents could never find me to go home until they looked for my sunday school teachers. There I would always be, “talking the stories of God” with them. New insights from old ideas are truly new wine in old winesacks.
    2) The life of faith is still a journey, following our Rabbi, Jesus. How true that we also still loose him along the way. When we realize he is not with us anymore how true it is that it is either because we have taken a different path than the one he leads us on, or even more commonly, Jesus refuses to follow our lead and we have left him behind. I am touched to realize that the life of discipleship is the “turning back” (hebrew shuv [to return] repent) to where Jesus has always been, calling, inviting, rejoicing in our return.
    3) Mary here is the key to our faithful response to Jesus’ will. I love the languague of pondering as “just going with it”. How simple, how profound, how dependent this is on trusting Jesus, even and particularly when trusting him seems unsmart, ill advised and dangerous.

    Thank you all, and the parishes where I’ll be preaching tomorrow thank you for your rabbinic love of telling the gospel story.
    Robert Hamel

  • Later than most of you… but in some reflections tomorrow at St. James UCC in Lovettsville, Va… (founded in 1733)… will focus mostly on the fact that Jesus was a dialectical person. He was not ‘programmed!’ And he ‘grew!’ We can’t stand pat on the answers of the past… and we need to ‘grow’ in the dialectical tensions of the historical contexts of the moment. Unfortunately, those ‘teachers’ in the Temple never got beyond their traditional answers, like so many who keep mouthing traditional theological answers today. So question… dialogue… and grow!

  • Bill Jokela

    I have two sons, now 38 and 39. Years ago when they were small, about 7 and 8, I took them to Dobbins Air Force Base to see an air show there. At one point I put the two of them on an entrance ramp to a large airplane and told them I would meet them at the exit ramp. I walked to the front and shortly afterwards one son, the oldest, came out. I waited for a moment and then began searching for the youngest tightly holding his brother’s hand. It seemed like we searched for hours before I saw him walking all by himself through these throngs of people. Whenever I read the story of the 12 year old Jesus in the Temple I remember my experience of losing my young son in the crowds and how frantic I felt. I am still puzzled by Jesus’ seeming insensitivity and also by his response, “…Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house.” An insight I just received while writing this is that since the 12 year old Jesus was obviously not talking about his “earthly father” he must have been referring to his heavenly Father. To pursue this train of thought, he must have had some burgeoning awareness of his earthly mission even at that age. (I love meditating on these, to me, challenging texts.)
    Just an observation.
    Chaplain Bill Jokela

  • John Griffin

    Thanks for the wonderful exchange of ideas and insights. Reluctant to speak from this idea because not sure how this would relate. Not a consistent lectionary preacher regret to say — mostly Advent and Lent. (Pray for me.) Yet this time, I am at a loss for words, and the lectionary reading for this Sunday does not readily have words rolling off my tongue. But one of the things that I might consider is the possibility of “Rediscovering Jesus.” This Emmanuel — God with us has to be a unique idea that has so many different dimensions to it. No doubt for Mary, the reality of who Jesus is has to be rediscovered on more than one occasion. Praying for a relevant word on the morrow!

  • Charlie

    Wow, tremendous insight gained by reading these posts. I’m new to this site and I also am preaching this text. My title is: “The Boy Who Became A Man” I will probably focus on Jesus’ growth into manhood and the implications that has for the world at-large.

  • Phyllis Tippit

    I was just browsing about the text and found your site. I’m not a blogger/tweeter/etc. . . . but I realized reading this what a great way to share ideas and insights. Just wanted to say I appreciate the blog and all the responses.

  • Tony’s audio sermon is now up ( Without the visuals, you’re missing some great artwork … and his confirmation picture … but is still a insightful message.

  • Why is Jesus at the temple. He is a child of 12, could it be he, like all 12 year olds, left to themselves, is doing what He loves? I believed He loved the Father’s worship, the Word of God and the joy of being with those who spoke of the relationship of God and man. All of these were present, it was His Father’s business, do we love these things?

  • Why is Jesus at the temple at 12? Hey… it’s bar-mitzvah time! But he must have set the ‘bar’ too high for his parents… among others…

  • Robert Hamel

    Jesus was there at the temple for the reason that the text says I think, his parents were devout Jews who came to Jerusalem for Passover as did many decout Jews who could afford it. I am unsure about the Bar Mitzvah angle because I am not sure that what we know as the modern ceremony has roots that go back that far. Anybody know? I find it much more profound, (and suggested in the text), that Jesus is in the temple during and after passover. Is he portrayed as a new Moses to lead his people out of slavery to the law into the promised land of grace? Now that’s interesting!

  • Here’s a suggestion from an old preacher: Try to avoid looking for ideas elsewhere as you begin the preparation for the sermon. Bible scholars, theologians, and other preachers may help, but they should serve only as guide. The best (and sometimes original) ideas can be found in the text itself. So begin by looking at the text very closely, parse it, understand it within its context, and do justice to what the author (the Gospel writer in this case) himself wrote, rather than begin by looking for what somebody else thinks, or using some novel or “scholarly” approach which some preachers are tempted to use (to sound sophisticated?). This may sound simplistic but it works. One does not have to complicate the Word which is usually given to us in a simple and clear manner. In fact, in my experience, and it’s a long one, the most powerful and effective way to minister to God’s people through the Word, is by knowing myself, through the help of the Spirit, the Word of God to us and then proclaim it from the heart.

  • Here’s the link to my sermon, entitled “The Lost Jesus,” on Luke 2:41-52:

  • JoanieD

    Ed, I tried to post a comment on your website under your sermon but it said I had to “log in” first. I had put my name and my email address, but I don’t see any place to log in. If I can’t do it, I will come back to this space and post my comment here. I loved your sermon!

  • Joanie, I’m sorry that you were unable to post your comment on my site. I see the problem and I’ll try to fix it. And thank you for your comment. What always helps me is understanding what the text says, not what it does not say. Blessings!

  • Just wanted to say thanks. I just began preaching through Luke and came to this story the same week as we buried an elder and beloved giant of our congregation. I was struggling to tie the two together when I came to this site, and now have written a sermon about how we, too, were leaving our annual feast/celebration of God’s wondrous works, certain that Christ was with us, when suddenly we were terrified, certain that he was gone, abandoned to face our fears alone. The whole time, even in our deepest fears and darkest nights, He was about his Father’s business, which is restoration, redemption, resurrection.


  • UtzB

    Thank you for all ideas and thoughts about this text. I’m a bit late commenting because I have a completely different challenge. I shall give a lesson about this words to confirmands (13-16) as part of my introduction to a congregation which hopefully will elect me afterwards as their pastor – after 6 years in an African context coming back to Europe. I will probably focus on that interesting relationship (and conflict) in the family and the thought that Jesus (as all Teenagers should do) starts to leave his childhood family and finds his own identity – but still comes back to them, recognizing their love and probably their means of power which still hold him being a child, he is fully human and therefore submitted to the process of childhood and development including that interisting phaseof puberty (which my own children are also going through). Lot’s to think of and to shrink into 45 bearable minutes for 15 teenagers…

  • Utz,

    Blessings on your ministry and opportunities to begin pastoral leadership among a congregation new to you.

    Several thoughts about your proposal. Primarily, it seems to me that puberty is a cultural construct at least as much as it is a biological one, particularly in Western (and Global North) cultures. So it’s not clear to me that the connection to the age of Jesus in this text implies addressing the same cultural issues, at the very least, as the teenagers you are likely addressing. On the issue of puberty, perhaps this text helps you make that very point– that a good bit of what they will experience in the coming years isn’t about them, per se, but rather about how they interact with and learn to negotiate in a world where they are gaining increasing responsibility but have still relatively little authority to act. In the world of Jesus, that disjunction between responsibility and authority at this point developmentally simply either did not exist or would have lasted a relatively short amount of time.

    So it seems to me, especially for a confirmation class, that the better focus from this text might be on developing the competency to do what Jesus did here– to engage in passionate debate with the brightest and best of the religious minds of his time and, remarkably, hold his own in the process. That, I think, speaks to the context of confirmation far better, because, after all, isn’t that, rather than merely a sort of rite of passage into adulthood generically, what such intensive catechetical processes are all about?

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  • Carl

    I am just preaching from the Hebrew and Epistle readings this Sunday. 😉

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