Maybe I might have been his dweeby sidekick – like, if he grew up just down the block, and we rode the same school bus, and our parents made us attend each other’s birthday parties, maybe he would suffer the presence of a pudgy, asthmatic tagalong; maybe he would let me hang with him, with the cool kids, and share in their adventures and mischief. Because think of what being BFF’s with the boy Jesus means: he could have cast out the monsters from under my bed, and he could have resurrected my dead gerbil, and he could have cleared up, cured my acne! But … but, think of what being BFF’s with the boy Jesus means: he would win every spelling bee and game of Go Fish! And so much for playing some friendly pick-up hoops, because the four-and-a-half-foot all-star would destroy with dunk shots. I could never share a secret with Jesus, in a show of closeness and trust, because he would long since have read my mind. On second thought, probably God-in-a-twelve-year-old’s-body would make for a pretty poor pal.
Silly as it sounds, the great thinkers of ages past would hold forth up at the blackboard on this very pickle: if Jesus was both a flesh-and-blood so-and-so and God, well, how did that work? Some wondered whether it wasn’t risky for God to link up with a regular Joe like this. They worried that weakness and sin would rub off on God; they wanted to protect God from coming into too close of contact with, from being compromised by the warts of the human condition. Forbid it that the good Lord should catch something! Others, though, had the jitters for just the opposite reason – they thought that the God-part of Jesus would totally smother out the human-being-part of Jesus. The danger in their minds was that if Jesus-the-dude can tap into God’s powers, Jesus is no longer a real dude. He’s Clark Kent or Harry Potter, but he’s not one of us sorry muggles. Because, think about it: God is all-powerful. Does that mean that every time the baby Jesus hiccupped the lights would flicker? God knows all things. Does that mean that the child Jesus never had to memorize his times tables? God is present everyplace. Does that mean that teenaged Jesus could dupe his parents? – be snugly in bed by curfew, but at the same time, be out carousing with his buddies?!
If the God and the human in Jesus get too smushed together, you end up with either a watered down God or a suped-up human, and most Christians have not felt comfortable thinking of Jesus as just Hercules by another name or as Gandhi on steroids. So what we need is to imagine a sort of firewall inside of Jesus, or one of those kiddie cafeteria trays that keeps the food from touching. The human-part of Jesus does human stuff (like burp and scratch and be confused and afraid), and does all of that separately from the God-part of Jesus, which does God stuff. But ‘God stuff’, like creating and sustaining and energizing, is not stuff you can really see with the naked eye anyway, right? So we never see God strolling around the Public Garden saying, Hmmm, roses here, and how about azaleas there. Poof! We see God accomplishing her supernatural business (such as creating) quietly and invisibly, through the natural course of things (say, through photosynthesis). Here’s the payoff: we can think of God working in and through Jesus as something of a silent partner. God in and through Jesus does supernatural stuff, like uphold and transform and inspire, but does all this the way God does anything – under the radar, behind the scenes, making use of natural processes. God does ‘God stuff’ in a way that, to the outside world, just looks like the human Jesus doing human stuff.
So, take this story of the boy Jesus in the temple. I had always imagined that, even though he looked like a kid – you know, he loved macaroni and cheese, had untied shoelaces, skinned knees, and a secret crush on Princess Elsa from Frozen – it was all an act. It was God beneath the toothy grin and chubby cheeks, God with a humongous God-brain. And when Jesus sat down and got to talking with those teachers, the whole exchange, to me, had the feeling of when mom or dad writes a kid’s college admissions essay. Jesus was cheating, was tricking them; he was grilling these guys unfairly, was taking advantage of his God-brain to school the grown-ups. But if it’s true that the work God did in and through Jesus, God did entirely in and through Jesus natural, human physical and psychological endowments, and so if it’s true that there were no shortcuts God could take, no getting around the growing pains, no skirting life’s hard knocks, if it’s true that not even God could skip a grade in Sunday School – then what we see in this story is not some divinity-in-disguise playing a game of gotcha with know-it-all minister-types. What we see is a kid, an otherwise ordinary kid.
What we see is a kid … but at church, enfolded in a huddle of adults who understand that within this fidgety, sssshhhhh-defying, pint-sized person is a spirituality worth taking seriously. What we see is not a bunch of busy, important rabbis patting the boy on the head, telling him he’s the future of the synagogue, but for now, better that he be seen and not heard. What we see is a religious community with room at the heart of it; a religious community reserving pride of place, even for children. We see elders humbling themselves before a child; elders sitting on the floor with him, crisscross-applesauce style, talking with him, talking with him and without talking down to him, and receiving his questions and his answers as the weighty, sacred gifts they are. We see elders who realize that there are truths they have lost touch with, truths that children seem to know instinctively and surely, truths that children might share if only adults have ears to hear. And we see, indeed, that these elders do hear and are astonished. For with them is a little boy who would lead them by the hand back to experiences of God and experiences of Godforsakeness that time and responsibility and disappointment have dulled. With them is a small child, who would make them remember what it is to have your heart thrill and leap within you like it’s Christmas morning. With them is a small child, who will make them remember what it is to be totally dependent on something bigger and stronger than you are and that you don’t understand. With them is a small child, who will make them remember what it is to fear being alone, or to fear being abandoned, or to fear being ashamed. With them is a small child, who will make them remember what it is to say I love you, and to mean it so, so much, but to then get taken. With them is a small child, who will make them remember what it is to say I hate you, and not mean it, but not be able to take that back. With them is a small child, who will make them remember what it is to be so angry that you scream and break something and then sit in the mess you’ve made and cry and don’t know how to say sorry or to make it better again.
If there is anything at all remarkable about this story, it is not that God-in-a-twelve-year-old’s-body shows off and proves himself the teacher’s pet, but it is rather that the learned and that the grown, that the saints take as their spiritual guide one from among the children, that the saints devote themselves to the care and shaping of this little boy’s faith, that they delight in it. And so the saints, the rabbis, and the priests in the temple, whose names we’ll never know, whose brilliance and fame we’ll never sing, the saints nurture the piety of One who would surpass them in vision and in virtue and who would change the world. And, to be sure, not only did the saints do this child, and do all those whom he would, in turn, teach and love and heal and save, not only did the saints do them a great service, but, when the saints opened their lives to this child, they did themselves a huge favor: for in befriending the young, they were recalled to the restlessness and possibility and terror and joy of being squirrely and green of soul; they were reacquainted with the ever-young, innocent, eager, endlessly curious, unflappably hopeful believer in each of them. As you sit in Old South Church, sit astonished, with Cole and Quinn and Calvin and Cordelia and Vivian and Jack and Naomi and Amos and Ari, may the same be so for you. Amen.