Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men. Doesn’t it sound strange to find a twelve-year-old boy and wisdom in the same sentence? 12 year olds grow in many ways: in appetite, in body odor, they grow out of their shoes and jeans – but wisdom? We usually associate wisdom with age, right? Wisdom comes from trial and error, from facing success and failure, with gray hair, with time spent in life’s school of hard knocks. The last thing you would expect from a 12 year old is wisdom, right? And yet, that’s what this morning’s Gospel delivers to us: wisdom wrapped in a 12 year old package; the wisdom of God: hidden in plain sight.
That’s how Mary and Joseph lost him. In his OT law, God commanded all Israelite men to come to Jerusalem for three great Feasts, including the Passover (Exodus 34:23; Deuteronomy 16:16) – and faithful Israelites often turned this into a family pilgrimage, with women and children coming too. Up until the age of twelve, boys walked with the women. But at twelve, they could walk with the men or the women. So it was probably one of those cases where, “I thought he was with you,” and “no, I thought he was with you.” Where he was was actually in the temple with the teachers for the equivalent of his “examination” – where he would be tested to see if he had learned enough at home and at the synagogue to become a fully-fledged man in Israelite society. And perhaps that lends some insight into why the Holy Spirit included this story – and only this story – from Jesus’ childhood. It shows us that even before he reached the age where he was required by law to be personally obedient to it, he was already obeying it as our perfect substitute.
But, as we learned on Christmas, this was no ordinary twelve year old. This is God in human flesh. The God who set the universe in order, the planets in their orbits, who governs all things in ways we cannot understand but can faintly perceive as the “laws of nature.” There was more wisdom in the tip of that child’s finger than in the gray heads of all the teachers in all of Israel. And yet he humbles himself to sit there to be examined by Israel’s teachers, answering their questions, impressing them with his answers. And…being obedient to his parents as one would expect from any other child. But he is not any child. He is God’s Child, his only-begotten Son chosen and anointed to save the world from sin, death, and hell. Of course, you wouldn’t know that just by looking at him. He looks like any other twelve year old. He blends in with us…because he is one of us: Immanuel, God with us. (Matthew 1:23)
That’s the mystery of God with us, isn’t it? It raises more questions than answers. Why? Why is the wisdom of God, the Son of God spending his time in the temple, growing in wisdom and stature, obediently following the will of his earthly parents and his heavenly Father? Spoiler alert: he’s doing it for you and for me. His Father sent him to earth to be born under the law, to redeem those under the law (Galatians 4:4-5) – that was the work his Father had given him and so that’s what he busied himself with. We call this Jesus’ active obedience. His obedience to two commandments stands out here: the third – remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy; and the fourth – honor your father and mother. Have you ever despised preaching and God’s Word or dishonored or angered your parents and others in authority? So have I. So there Jesus is in the Temple, his Father’s house, joyfully hearing and studying God’s Word for all the times we haven’t. There he is as a twelve year-old-boy – obedient to his parents, never talking back, never skipping his chores, never refusing what Mary made for dinner – because we’ve done all those things and more. Jesus’ lived an entirely perfect life – from the womb, to the manger, the home, the workshop, the temple, the cross, the tomb – for us because we haven’t. He lives the perfect life God demanded from us. He lives as a man all the way to the point of death – in order to save all of us from death.
But all that is hidden, isn’t it? All of that is cloaked under the flesh and blood of a twelve-year-old boy. God had promised Adam and Eve and their descendants that he would send someone to save them from themselves (Genesis 3:15) and this child is the one to do it. And he doesn’t look like much, does he? Certainly over the course of his life we get small glimpses of what lies beneath the surface – his miracles, his Baptism, his Transfiguration, ultimately his death, resurrection, and ascension. But like the last Christmas gift to be opened, the gift of Jesus is largely hidden, hidden in plain sight, to be revealed only on the Father’s timeline. There is the wisdom of God hidden in plain sight: an apparently normal twelve year old boy growing, learning, obeying – and, at the same time, an anything but normal boy from Galilee stunning the teachers with his answers and maintaining perfect obedience to both his earthly parents and heavenly Father.
If this twelve-year-old boy is what God’s plan of salvation looks like – why doesn’t everyone see it? Why didn’t Mary understand that Jesus had to be in his Father’s house? Why did some of these same teachers cry for Jesus’ death only 20 years later? Why are so many people today so slow to see baby Jesus, boy Jesus, fully grown Jesus as the wisdom of God in human flesh? (1 Corinthians 1:24) Often, because we are like your typical foolish children, we want to do it ourselves, we want to attain wisdom on our own, apart from God. Isn’t that what Adam and Eve were after in the Garden of Eden? They wanted to know good and evil, wisdom that God – in his wisdom – didn’t want them to have, because standing over creation and judging between good and evil is not our job, but his. But Adam and Eve decided they knew better than God and handed that arrogance down to us. Just as they disobeyed God’s clear Word and decided to eat the forbidden fruit – so often we imagine that we are judges of the world, of our lives, of God himself – that we get to decide for ourselves what is right and what is wrong based on our own wisdom. We so easily become our own gods. And, honestly, pretty terrible gods: self-centered, lazy, short-sighted, always lacking information, constantly changing our standards and morals from day to day. With Adam and Eve we’ve traded away the image of God (Colossians 3:10; Ephesians 4:24) to join the animal world, following our own natural instincts and desires rather than the God to which we owe our very existence. Even we – the few, the proud, those who come to church on the Sunday after Christmas – must confess that we have trusted our own wisdom instead of the wisdom of God, our Creator and Redeemer.
And that’s precisely why God became man and cloaked himself in the flesh of a twelve year old boy. The Apostle Paul says that the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. (1 Corinthians 1:25) God sent a boy to do a job only God could do. God sent his Son, born of a woman, cradled in a manger, raised in a household, obedient to father and mother – to save this world from the chaos, darkness, and destruction of sin by his perfectly obedient life and sacrificial death which washes away the sin, and foolishness, of the world.
Now, it would be easy for us to just smile and maybe chuckle a little bit at this story. To think that this makes for a good Sunday School lesson but isn’t really worth our time if we’ve been confirmed and spent long years in the trenches of Christianity. We might smirk at the temple teachers, thinking themselves so wise and learned, being astonished that this seemingly “average” twelve year old could know the Old Testament better than they do. “If only they knew who they were talking to” – we might scoff. We might shake our heads at Mary and Joseph – “who in the world would lose their child, much less the Son of God?” We might like to think that we are better, smarter, wiser than that. But are we?
Aren’t we just as likely to miss God when he’s busy working in his hidden and foolish ways? As parents, we wouldn’t dare miss an appointment for our children’s immunizations and check-ups – but are we as urgent about Baptism, about teaching our children to know the Word of God and pray to their heavenly Father, to make any and every sacrifice necessary to ensure that they are daily growing in the wisdom of God and not just in the wisdom of the world? We can’t help talking about a new diet or exercise plan, a new medicine, a new “hack” that has improved our lives in some way – but are we as eager to talk about how we called upon the Lord in the day of trouble, how he answered and delivered us from sickness or disease or disaster? (Psalm 91:15) We are always searching and planning for our next meal – we complain that we are “starving to death” if we happen to miss lunch, but do we experience the same pangs of hunger and thirst for forgiveness and the assurance of eternal life when we miss the Lord’s Supper – the only food that can cleanse us from our sins and fill us with the assurance of salvation? Aren’t we often tempted to view the Church as just another human organization – a charity, even – instead of the one place on earth that God comes to bless his people with his gifts and his grace in Word and Sacrament?
We shouldn’t shake our heads at the temple teachers or Mary and Joseph and their apparent foolishness. Because when God confronts us with his wisdom, hidden in plain sight, hidden in humble and unlikely places – we are often just as blind to it. Did you notice that Jesus’ response to Mary’s anxiety is really a lesson we all need to learn? They thought they had to search high and low for their son, God’s Son – when he was in the only logical place for him to be: his Father’s house, where the Word and Sacrament are. This is where we find Jesus because the opposite is actually true: this is where he finds us. The truth is that he was never lost – we were – and so he cloaks his wisdom in humility and foolishness to find us.
That’s the wisdom of God hidden in plain sight – wisdom that the world considers pure foolishness. The wisdom of God is swaddled in a manger, “lost” at the temple, growing in wisdom and stature as a twelve-year-old boy. The wisdom of God is later despised and hated by the same teachers who were once so amazed at his understanding, whipped and beaten and condemned by the authorities of the world, crucified by the very people he came to save, risen from the empty tomb, ascended to his Father’s right hand in glory. The wisdom of God is hidden in plain sight today in the pages of Scripture and hidden “in, with, and under” bread and wine and water. Don’t miss the wisdom of God hidden in plain sight – because the wisdom of faith that clings to Jesus as true man and true God, as both Mary’s Son and the Son of God, as a twelve year old boy and the God of the universe, as the God-man who suffered and died and rose to redeem us from our sins – that is the only wisdom which is able to make you wise for salvation. (2 Timothy 3:15) May God grant us the humility to perceive his wisdom hidden in human flesh. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.