As Marion said, this is the only Gospel story we have of the child Jesus. It’s easy to make this child Jesus unearthly and divine, far removed from the realities of our lives, but this story is very near our lives.
First, the search for the misplaced child. Most parents I know have at least one story like this: whether you suddenly realize you left the baby in the car, or both parents meet after a day of errands and realize that neither of them had kid #3. This story is firmly grounded in lived experience.
And then it turns out that young Jesus has been in the temple all along, amazing his hearers with his questions and understanding. Mary, the sainted virgin, has a VERY human response, in which she probably wants to hug and strangle Jesus at the same time: “Where on EARTH have you been? Didn’t you REALIZE we’d be worrying about you?!”
Jesus’ response is really pretty tactless: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” I wouldn’t blame Mary and Joseph if they grounded him for a month.
It’s that response that makes it easy to think of this child Jesus as haloed and shining, somehow living in a different world, but what is interesting is what is not in this story. There were stories of the boy Jesus performing miracles that did not make it into the Bible. Instead, our ancestors in faith decided that this story was the more important one: a story not of a wonderworking child, but a child who inspired wonder because of his questions and his understanding.
We might be tempted to make this story about how divine Jesus was, and how even as a child he had some kind of supernatural understanding of himself. But Jesus, our tradition teaches, was somehow both fully human and fully divine. The church decided long ago that Jesus did not merely assume a shell of humanity, like a costume to disguise his godliness, but was fully human while also fully divine. That teaching brings its own host of questions, but what I want to underline today is that Jesus’ divinity did not exclude his humanity.
We are not told what kinds of questions Jesus was asking, nor what understanding he displayed in the temple, but we are told one thing: he knew that God was his father: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Jesus, fully divine and fully human, is claiming his identity as a child of God. All of him, human and divine, belonged to God, which means that all of us, in our capacity for great good and great evil, our generosity and selfishness, our faith and our fear: all of us belongs to God. We are all of us children of God.
What does that mean?
It means that we are claimed by God. According to Psalm 139, God claims us while we are still in the womb. We come into this world as children of God; we never have to earn God’s love. The Bible is very clear that for both the Jewish and Christian faiths, the first move is always from God. It is always God who initiates relationship.
And then out of love, rejoicing, and thanksgiving, we respond by keeping God’s ways: Jews keep Torah; Christians observe the sacraments and strive to love one another. But we never do any of this in order to earn or retain our identity as a child of God. No, that is always freely given; it is our choice how we respond. If we arrive in the world belonging to God, then that identity guides us as we choose where else and to whom else we will belong.
In an ideal world, our families of birth will welcome us in as we are, and make a space for us to belong exactly as we are, but this is not an ideal world. Sometimes our families tell us we don’t belong, or make belonging conditional. Sometimes the condition is being a parent to our parent. Sometimes the condition is being a replica of our parent, or living out their dreams. Sometimes the condition is loving the right people or fitting the right body.
And because belonging is a fundamental human need, and because as children we desperately need our families, we will do everything we can to belong. Sometimes that will be exhausting, and sometimes it will be damaging. But when we are old enough and ready enough and sometimes just broken enough to hear the good news that we are children of God, then that can be an identity to which we cling
I don’t know that anything can ever fully erase the scar of not belonging in our families. But God can heal the wound. That’s the promise: come to me, God says, for I love you as you are. You belong to me, and when you belong to me, you are enough. You are enough just for being you.
You are beloved.
You are worthy.
This is what we hold on to for dear life, because this knowledge will anchor us, will orient us, will guide us. If we are worthy of God’s love, then surely we are worthy of human love.
Are we not worthy of human love that takes us as we are?
Are we not worthy of human love that recognizes, affirms, and celebrates our strengths and foibles, our gifts and imperfections?
Are we not worthy of human love that helps us grow, that helps us heal, that bring us back to God?
Yes. Yes we are.
This doesn’t mean we have to reject our families; it doesn’t mean we have to choose between God and others. It simply means that if we claim identity as God’s children, then we choose to belong places that affirm and reinforce that. And that is what church aspires to be.
We need each other in order to remember who and whose we are. Being a child of God is not a private affair between ourselves and God. It is not a closed loop. Being loved by God does not stop with you or I, but goes on to embrace the world. The little baby born in Bethlehem was not heralded by angels because he would work miracles, but because a powerful new force of love had come into the world. We are always God’s children, no matter what we do, but if we want to know it and live it and breathe it, then we have to act like it, and acting like it is to see ourselves and see others through the eyes of God: and then treat each other as God’s children.
If we treat ourselves as children of God, then there is no need to put ourselves down or puff ourselves up. We are not better than or worse than; we are worthy, beloved, and enough.
If we treat others as children of God, then there is no need to put them down or place them on pedestals. They are not better than or worse than; they are worthy, beloved, and enough.
How much could that change our lives?
If every person we met treated us like a beloved child of God, worthy of time and respect, how would that feel?
If we treated every person we met like a beloved child of God, worthy of time and respect, how would that feel?
Feeling and acting like a child of God reinforce each other. Sometimes we don’t feel like a child of God, so we act like it in order to remember: we treat ourselves and others as beloved of God. Sometimes we don’t act like a child of God, so we come back to God and to each other in order to remember how it feels. None of us can do this alone; we need to hold on to each other in order to hold on to ourselves and hold on to God.
It is worth it, my friends. We are loved because we are, and we are so that we may love. Let us claim this heritage of the Bethlehem child, and live into it.