In Wisdom and Favor – The Family of Jesus

Part III of the Advent Series “A Family Christmas”

Luke 2:39-52

child jesusEver since the time of the early church, Christians have wondered about the “lost years” of Jesus–that period between the stories about his birth and the beginning of his public ministry at about age 30. That’s a pretty big gap of time to cover and some have tried to fill in the time with stories that are at once fanciful and bizarre. The early Gnostics–a pseudo-Christian sect that was concerned with secret knowledge and the Platonist separation of body and spirit–came up with stories of Jesus doing little miracles when he was a boy. For example, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a late document from the second century, has the boy Jesus making little birds out of clay and then setting them free. In another story, a boy runs into the Jesus accidentally and Jesus says “Thou shalt not finish thy course” and the other boy drops dead on the spot. When people criticized him for the incident, he struck them with blindness. In one more story, Jesus was accused of pushing a boy out of a window, but then redeems himself by raising they from the dead.

Other stories have Jesus going to Qumran to study with the Essenes or that he spent time learning from the Pharisees. Other more bizarre stories have Jesus journeying to India to study with gurus. The Arthurian legends have him going to Britain.

Most of these stories are very late, very made up, or are at least complete speculation and are in no way connected to the tradition of the Gospels and the early church; but they are a clear attempt to try and imagine what a boy with divine spiritual  power might do with it if given the chance. They kind of remind me of Harry Potter-like stories, where the boy has amazing power and it occasionally leaks out into the muggle world.

Boy Jesus In The Temple Children's Bible StoriesBut the Gospels are largely silent on the childhood of Jesus, and the singular story that we have is here in Luke–the story of the boy Jesus in the Temple. You’ll notice that there’s nothing miraculous in this story. Jesus performs no amazing feat other than his grasp of questions and answers in the Temple. There’s no sense that Jesus ever strikes down his accusers at any time during his life. What we have here, pure and simple, is a family story–a very human story–that reveals the extraordinary through an ordinary experience.

Last week we talked about Jesus’ family tree and I said that it’s interesting that Jesus, the Word made flesh, comes into the world via a human family with a checkered past. This week we dive into that a little more by realizing that Jesus was raised for 30 years in a particular family from the little village of Nazareth in the northern part of Israel. It’s easy for us to believe, like those who fantasized the Gospel of Thomas, that the divine child, the one the angels sang about, didn’t really need a human family. After all, he was God and would certainly have been equipped to do things under his own power. Instead, however, God chooses to raise his Son through a regular human family and in doing so gives us a model for family relationships–relationships that can raise up children who grow in both wisdom and stature, and in favor of God and people.; relationships that can make for healthy marriages and create families on a mission for God.

Before we get into this story, we need to remember a few things about the parents to whom God entrusted the child Jesus. We learn a lot about Mary in the first two chapters of Luke–a young girl, probably in her teens, betrothed to an older man. Men in the first century world generally married late because it took that long to accumulate enough money for a dowry, while girls married young since their fathers generally wanted to receive the dowry offered by a new husband. Marriage was essentially a contract between two families. Engagements could last a while until the new husband could make the downpayment on the bride. It’s in the midst of that engagement that the angel comes to Mary with the news that the Holy Spirit will overshadow her and that she, a virgin, will bear the Son of God (1:35). This is shocking news and puts Mary in a difficult situation. Being unmarried and pregnant was a capital offense and yet Mary trusts the Lord. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” she says to the angel. “Let be with me according to your word.” The Greek Orthodox Church, like the Roman Catholic Church, thus venerates Mary as the “Theotokos”–the God-bearer.

But we often miss the contribution of Joseph in this story. Joseph never speaks in Luke’s Gospel, nor does he speak at all in Matthew. There, he is the focal point of the announcement about Jesus’ birth, but he simply does what God commands–a condition that was laudable in the ancient world. Men were to be strong, silent types while the women were encouraged and expected to show emotion. All we know about Joseph is that he was a “righteous man”–which was a way of saying that he was faithful to the covenant God made with his ancestors; that very line of people we talked about last week. He is indeed strong and silent, and in Matthew we learn that his primary focus was the care of his wife and child–staying with Mary and protecting her, despite the shame it would bring upon him in the eyes of the other villagers, and taking the newborn child and his mother to Egypt to flee from the murderous King Herod.

jesus familyIn short, these parents are devoted, faithful people–faithful to God and each other. If you’re looking for traits of successful families, that’s usually the starting point. Remember in the first sermon in this series we talked about Adam’s unwillingness to sacrifice himself on behalf of God and his wife and how that led to disaster for the human family. Here we see that behavior reversed. Mary and Joseph had every reason to separate, but both sacrifice themselves on behalf of God and each other.

Their faithfulness to God is evidenced by what they did. After Jesus was born, they dedicated him at the temple “as was written in the law of the Lord,” and they “offered a sacrifice according to to what is stated in the law of the Lord (2:23). It was only after they “had finished everything required by the law of the Lord” that they returned to Nazareth (2:39) Luke’s repetition of that phrase “the law of the Lord” indicates to us that Mary and Joseph are, indeed, righteous and devout.

In fact, that’s the reason they went back to Jerusalem in the first place. Each year, Jews were required to make a pilgrimage back to the holy city and the Temple three times–for the feast of Passover, the feast of Weeks, and the feast of Tabernacles. In verse 41, Luke tells us that “every year [Jesus’] parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.” The ritual was part of their lives, even though it had to be costly for them to make the journey of more than a hundred miles on foot each year.

I would argue that for Jesus, the child, the devotion of his parents was an example of what it meant to be a faithful person. Even if the child was aware of his divine as well as human nature, the fact that the people with whom he was closest maintained a rhythm of faithfulness to God and each other had to rub off on him. As a child, Jesus would have been instructed regularly in the synagogue in Nazareth, but also at home by his father, who was the spiritual teacher in the Jewish family. He would receive his bar mitzvah at age 12, a ritual through which he officially became an adult, having been mentored by his father. It took mother and father together to raise a child who would be the Messiah.

I’ve been in ministry a long time, and one of the things I can tell you is that I’ve had a lot of conversations with parts of families. When I was a youth pastor, I often spoke to parents through car windows–parents I would never see in church but who wanted me to give their kid some religion in the hour and half I had them each week. I’ve also spoken with one parent who is involved in the religious training of the children while the other stays at home or does something else. Other times it’s the parents who are bullied by the culture into deciding between church and the kids’ sports on Sunday morning. While families do overcome these obstacles, the way that the family is wired by God is for raising each other up and training in righteousness. Jesus may have been able to do it on his own, but God gave him a devout, faithful family who worked together to insure that he grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and people.

And so there they are at the Passover Feast, as required by the law. Traveling home, Mary and Joseph don’t know where Jesus is. They assume he is somewhere in the back of the group with the relatives and friends who are traveling with them in the caravan. See, it’s not only Mary and Joseph who are raising Jesus, it’s the whole extended family–an extended family so trusted that at first no one is worried. The assumption was that the whole village, the whole community, was raising the child. It reminds me of when I was a kid. When we went out to play at the beginning of the day, my mom had no idea where I was but she knew I was in the neighborhood. I might eat lunch at a friend’s house or they might eat at mine. I could be in the woods building a fort or jumping my bike off a ramp in the street like Evel Knievel (which is how I got this scar, by the way). I had no cell phone and knew I could use any neighbor’s phone to call home if I needed anything. Mom knew that the whole neighborhood was watching out for me. The only communication I needed was when mom stuck a huge cowbell out the back door and rang it. Wherever I was in the neighborhood, I would hear that bell and knew it was time for dinner.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of community in raising strong families. With extended families often far away in this mobile culture, we need more than ever to take the opportunity to be community for each other, beginning here at church–to see all these children as our children. Indeed, that’s the vow we take when a child is baptized, that we will participate in the raising of this child and “surround them [the whole family] with a community of love and forgiveness.” In all the debate over marriage these days, the one thing the church must never forget is that we are in the people development business–to be a community of faith where families find healing and wholeness together. We need Sunday School teachers and ministry leaders, of course, but every person in the congregation has a role to play in the raising up of strong families. From saying hello to the children, to volunteering to support and pray for our families, every one of us, no matter our age, has a part in this mission.

Finding the Savior in the TempleJesus didn’t answer the dinner bell that night, however. His parents couldn’t find him anywhere among the relatives. Every parent knows the terror of not knowing where your kid is–even if it’s only losing sight of them in the grocery store for a couple of minutes. Even now, with cell phones, when a kid doesn’t answer right away we begin to assume they’re incapacitated and in trouble (rather than just forgetting to turn the ringer on).

Three days they search for him in the big city. Where could he be? We would probably check the arcade, the mall, the movie theater, or Chipotle if it was our 12 year-old. The last place we might expect to find him is in church. Even Mary and Joseph, devout as they were, took three days to look in the Temple. When they found him, there he was–talking with the teachers, listening to them and asking questions.

In Jesus’ day, reaching the age of 12 meant that you were now a man. Somehow, Mary and Joseph missed his growing up to that point. All that they had done was preparing him for this moment, but when it came they still saw him as a little boy in need of rescue. Isn’t that the way it is with us, parents? You suddenly wonder where the time went, how they got so big, how they suddenly became and adult and didn’t need you anymore. With our first child in college, I know exactly how they felt. He had left Nazareth a boy and suddenly there he was, conversing with the adults as an equal–indeed, more than an equal.

Mary, who still sees Jesus as her little boy, is furious. Even in her anger, however, she doesn’t shame the child by calling him irresponsible or stupid. She separates the action from the person: “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety.”  So many children, including the adult children in this room, have have been given the message that love is always conditional on what we do or fail to do. Mary, on the other, hand begins with the word “child”–no matter what he has done, he is her child. It is is one thing to tell your child “You are…” and quite another to say, “You have done…” She talks about herself and Joseph and how they feel rather than turning the blame on him.

“Your father and I have been searching for you.” Here again, we see a united family. The unity of the couple is key to the raising of the child. They are both in it together. Mary does all the talking. Joseph, as usual, is silent but is present. I wonder what Joseph thought when they found Jesus at the temple? Did he suddenly realize, “This is what I’ve been preparing him for?” Did it hurt when Jesus said, in response, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know I had to be in my father’s house?” We don’t know what Joseph thought at this point, but I think he knew that it was his and Mary’s mission to help him accomplish all that God had prepared him to do. Is that not the mission of every family?

What we do know is that Jesus “went down with them and returned to Nazareth and was obedient to them.” Every mother in here just thought the same thing: “I’ll BET he did!” But Jesus’ mother “treasured all these things in her heart.”

For 18 more years, however, we know nothing. We can infer, however, that Jesus probably spent time apprenticing with his father, taking meals with the family, watching over brothers and sisters that would come along. He would continue to study and learn, continue to question and speak with religious scholars in the temple each time he returned to Jerusalem. Luke sums it up this way: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” Only after all those years did Jesus launch out into the world on his own to do what the Father had sent him to do.

family on mission

For more information on Family on Mission, go to

And here’s the thing: if even Jesus needed a family to help him prepare for his mission, how much more do we, too, need to strengthen families so that they might be families with a mission–a mission to raise up children and grandchildren for the work of God’s kingdom. Notice this graphic: Spiritual parents (whether in a blood family or a church family) with predictable patterns of worship, devotion, compassion, and service, leads to children and disciples with a missional purpose.

Like Mary and Joseph, the devotion of parents and grandparents in their own relationship to God is key in raising disciples who will make disciples. Your children and grandchildren will follow your lead. The presence of a strong community, a church family, can strengthen their sense of mission and relationship. And the balance between being and doing means that we will not raise up children to be producers only—that they will be people on a mission for God, a mission that comes from a deep relationship with God and a desire to work for his kingdom. This is how Jesus was raised. It’s the way we can be the family as well.

There’s no guarantee that our children and grandchildren will turn out to be devoted followers of Jesus Christ, despite our best efforts. We pray and we trust God to lead them to himself, but we can set the conditions by which they are grounded in a life of devotion, a life in community, a life of balance between being and doing. They may stray, especially in a world with so much distraction, but we can give them a foundation upon which they my return. We do our best to be devoted to God, to raise them in community, and build them up, but then we trust them to God for the rest. That’s the mission of the family and the mission of the church. 

Christmas is a marvelous time to remember that Jesus grew up in a family, and it’s also a time for us to remember that the mission of the family is part of the mission of God. Let’s use the time we have with our families this year to do all in our power to build them up in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and all people!


Maldonado, Jorge. Even in the Best of Families: The Family of Jesus and Other Biblical Families Like Ours. Geneva, Switzerland: WCC Publications, 1994. pp. 1-12.

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