2 Samuel 2:18-20; Luke 2:41-52
Picture in your mind a child you know who is remarkable. It can be your own child, or someone else’s—but focus your mind’s eye on a remarkable child. What makes that boy or girl so special? Is he or she a gifted musician or student or athlete? Is he or she particularly mature for his or her age? Is he or she sensitive and articulate or easygoing and a pleasure to be around?
Our Old Testament and gospel lessons this morning invite us to focus on two remarkable children in scripture, Samuel and Jesus. Samuel was the first son of Hannah and Elkanah. Like some couples you may know, Hannah and Elkanah were unable to have children, and this grieved them deeply. Hannah was even taunted for her barrenness. Finally, one year, when they had traveled to Shiloh for the yearly sacrifice, Hannah reached the breaking point. She became so distraught that she couldn’t eat, and she couldn’t stop weeping. Finally, she decided that she would present herself before the Lord, where she poured out all of her grief and pain to God. Hannah pledged that if God would give her a son, she would return the child to God’s service as a Nazirite priest. God heard Hannah’s prayer that day and granted her a son. And Hannah kept her word. As soon as Hannah weaned the child she brought him to the temple for the priests to raise and train.
When our story opens today, Hannah and Elkanah have once again arrived in Shiloh for the yearly sacrifice. Oh, how they must have looked forward to those trips—for the chance to hold their beloved son and visit with him. Hannah had worked diligently beforehand, making clothing to give Samuel—and I’ll bet there were other gifts as well. Imagine the parent’s pride as they watched their remarkable child ministering before the Lord.
Most of us are probably more familiar with Jesus’ story. The particular narrative we heard earlier is significant because it is the only story we have about Jesus between his birth and his baptism nearly thirty years later. In this story, Jesus’ family, like Samuel’s, had traveled for a significant holiday. As we join the text, Jesus’ family had traveled with a large caravan from Nazareth to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. After the festivities, the group began the long journey home. Although it seems strange to us that it took Mary and Joseph a whole day to miss Jesus, this would not have been unusual in his time. It was not uncommon for children to visit or travel with other families in the same caravan, and Jesus’ parents would not have been neglectful to assume that Jesus was among the group.
We can all imagine Mary and Joseph’s panic when they discovered that Jesus was missing. All of us who have temporarily lost a child can remember the fear that grips our hearts and the adrenaline rush that compels us to search frantically for our child. Mary and Joseph leave the caravan and rush back to Jerusalem, where it takes them three days of diligent searching to finally find Jesus. While they had been madly searching, Jesus had been sitting in the temple, absorbing the teaching of the rabbis. Luke tells us that all who observed Jesus were amazed at his level of understanding and at the depth of the questions and answers Jesus shared with the teachers. But Jesus’ parents were not amused or impressed. Understandably, they scolded him for the great anxiety he had caused them. Jesus, who does not appear to have been willfully disobedient, seemed nonplussed. “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Jesus asked.
Scholars observe that up to this point, all the signs of Jesus’ special nature or mission have been to or through others—the angel, Mary, Elizabeth and Zachariah, the shepherds. But now, Jesus is beginning to have his own awareness. There were, in Jesus, vague stirrings of his own identity, if not his vocation. Jesus was a remarkable child.
But were Jesus and Samuel really so remarkable in this regard? Of course, Jesus was truly remarkable. He was God’s Son, as an adult he was both fully human and fully divine, the One who came to be God with us and our redeemer. But at this point in Jesus’ childhood, and in Samuel’s, are these events so unusual? Perhaps we are in error in believing that they are.
If we are honest, in most of our congregations we don’t have very high expectations for our children. Instead of working to incorporate them into the full life of the body of Christ, instead of allowing them to minister before the Lord as Samuel did, we let them light the candles, we have the children’s choir sing occasionally, and we let them participate in the annual Christmas pageant. We don’t expect them to be able to accomplish much more. Instead of allowing them to have in-depth dialogue with the rabbis and teachers as Jesus did, we whisk them out to children’s church because we don’t expect them to be able to sit through “the real sermon.”
Church-growth folk tell us that for every three ministers who are retiring, there is only one young person entering the ministry. Although there are many reasons for this, a significant one is that in many of our churches, we no longer expect God to call and we no longer expect or encourage our young people to hear and respond when God speaks. Jesus and Samuel had special callings, but they did not hear them in a vacuum. They were surrounded by wise and discerning adults who helped them listen and respond. When was the last time a member of our congregation experienced a call to ministry? When was the last time we listened and encouraged? Stop and get a picture in your mind with me. Who are those remarkable children in our midst?