This one little story in Luke’s gospel is the only moment we get in our Bible that describes Jesus’ youth – the only one set between his miraculous birth and the beginning of his ministry. And it seems, somehow, completely appropriate for a preteen Jesus. His one big rebellion is to run off to the temple alone, and study. That sort of question and answer style is a common teaching method in the rabbinic tradition, and so this scene of Jesus sitting among the teachers makes perfect sense for a smart and devout young Jewish boy in the year before his bar mitzvah. And yet, of course, there are also his parents to contend with. Now if sarcasm had been around in the ancient world, I imagine this might have been an opportunity for a killer eye roll. Can’t you just picture him, like any other 12-year-old – “Really, mom? Where else would I be??”
Because some things just seem to go along with being human. And if our God is truly going to take on human flesh and live among us, then our God will have to go through puberty just like the rest of us. And we know that’s not always pretty. But really, there are a lot of times when being human isn’t exactly pretty. We like to think of the infant Jesus as also miraculously quiet, and well-behaved, and clean, in addition to all the other things he was. But what if, like every other human infant, occasionally that baby screamed and threw up on himself?
There’s a text known as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (written only a few decades after Luke’s gospel but which didn’t make it into our Bible for obvious reasons) that tells a few more stories about Jesus’ childhood. At 5, he gets in trouble for shaping some swallows out of clay on the sabbath, and then while he is being reprimanded, the birds come to life and fly away. Later on, when Joseph is scolding Jesus for lashing out at a boy who made him angry, Jesus speaks a few words and the boy’s parents (who had told Joseph what he had done) are stricken blind.
At six and at eight he heals some of his friends who get hurt while they’re playing – but then he keeps sassing his teachers, and manages to go through three of them before he even learns the alphabet. He is a child, testing his boundaries and learning what he can do, and trying his parents’ patience all the way along.
Now, I’m not saying these stories are necessarily true – there were a lot of stories of Jesus floating around the ancient world, even beyond the four books that we’ve come to recognize as our gospels. But what if they were? What if Jesus did run around Galilee stirring up trouble like he did as an adult, with the power to curse and the power to heal, but without the good sense to control that power? Can we believe in a Jesus who became really and truly human, with all that entails? Or a Word who was in the beginning with God, who was God, who became flesh and sassed his mother?
* * *
I had a chance to relax a little this week and spend some time with my family. I also caught up on some movies I’ve been meaning to see, on top of our usual Christmas classics – in particular, The Avengers, which came out in May of this year and which one of my students has barely stopped raving about since then. The Avengers are all superheroes created in the Marvel Comics universe, and they’re brought together in the film to fight off a huge alien threat. One of these superheroes is the Incredible Hulk, who is the alter ego of a mild-mannered physicist named Bruce Banner. Dr. Banner had been conducting some experiments with gamma radiation, and when something goes wrong he is accidentally exposed to a massive amount of radiation that probably should have killed him. Instead, he begins to transform at random into the Hulk, who is massive, green, nearly indestructible, and very, very angry.
At first, Dr. Banner isn’t sure what causes “the other guy” to come out, but he learns pretty quickly that the Hulk emerges when he’s particularly angry, upset, or threatened. The character has been around since the 60s, and so there have been plenty of stories told over the years in comics, TV, and film about his growth and development as Bruce Banner learns what it means to be the Hulk, and how he can avoid losing control and hurting people he cares about.
When we meet this latest incarnation at the beginning of The Avengers, he has been working as a doctor in the slums of Calcutta, and he gives off this world-weary, Zen-like calm in the midst of the chaos around him, even as he comes back to the US and is thrust into the middle of this intergalactic battle that threatens the future of humanity. All through the movie, everyone around him seems terrified that he will Hulk out and destroy them all at any moment, and his friends ask him repeatedly what his secret is – how he has learned to control this. And he brushes their concerns aside, every time – he is in control of the Hulk, and he has more important things to worry about.
At the climax of the movie, our heroes are standing in the middle of Park Avenue in New York, taking a moment of pause from the fighting. As a giant, armor-plated alien crashes up the street towards them, Bruce Banner (as his human self!) calmly turns and starts to walk toward it. Captain America stops him and says, “Dr. Banner! Now might be a really good time for you to get angry.” With a wry smile that seems to hint at a lifetime of sadness, he turns and replies, “That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always angry.”
* * *
There are a lot of reasons for us to be angry. There are a lot of things we probably should be angry about, and we’ve seen a lot of them in the news the past several weeks. And that anger is useful sometimes, when it means standing up against injustices, fighting for what’s right, or protecting yourself or someone else. But it’s no way to live your life all the time. We wouldn’t remember Jesus the same way at all if the only thing he ever did was flip over tables and throw out moneychangers.
But these stories, of the Hulk, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or Frankenstein and his monster, these stories resonate with us because we know those monsters. We know what it feels like to have that tiny, angry monster voice inside, or maybe sometimes it’s not quite so tiny or so hidden. Some of us have known monsters who come out behind closed doors, behind the face of a loved one. Each of us sometimes has the potential for awful things, and often they’re in reaction to awful things that were once done to us.
And yet! All of us, each one of us, also has the potential to do and to create incredible beauty in our world. Our capacity for love and for relationships of all kinds is one of the fantastic gifts of being human. As beloved children of a creator God, we have also created wonderful things – works of art big and small, from the Sistene Chapel to the fingerpainted masterpieces on refrigerator doors all over the world. All the beautiful things of our hearts, when we can risk sharing them with another person.
Christians through the millennia have struggled with the notion that Jesus was somehow both God and human – how could two such very different natures exist within the same person? Well, I think if we can be really honest with ourselves, we will sometimes see two very different natures inside of us, as well. Each of us is created as a dear child of God, and as such we can do amazing things – works of generosity and goodness and beauty – and by them we show forth the light of God within each one of us.
But at the very same time, we also always have the potential for things we wouldn’t be so proud of. For spiteful words spoken in anger, for greed, for revenge, for prejudice. And sometimes we give in to those impulses, because we’re human. But in the midst of our humanity, somehow we are learning a better way. In the teachings and example of Jesus, from the prophets and wise ones and saints and martyrs through the ages, we are learning a new way. And most of them were still human, and sometimes fell short of their own ideals or the ways we would like to remember them. So we can see their struggles, and recognize in them our own struggles, and strive toward the better things.
And that struggle will most likely continue – since we will never actually be God in the way that Jesus is. But then, I’m assuming that none of us will be a rampaging green rage monster in the way Bruce Banner is. But that struggle is not itself a bad thing: it’s just who we are. And we will go on being human, and trying our best to look to the light of God that burns within us. And every week, we will confess the places we have failed, and then we will get on with the business of glorifying God. This week we’ll try and do it better.
* * *
There’s a story that’s been circulating for several years – it purports to be an old Cherokee legend, but it seems like it actually originated with the evangelist Billy Graham. It’s a story of a grandfather talking to a child, and he says, “There is a fight going on inside me. It’s a vicious fight between two wolves. One wolf is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
Now in Billy Graham’s version, what seems to matter is which wolf is ultimately going to win. But I think it’s pretty clear that the wolf who wins today might not win tomorrow; and even if one wolf is winning in this particular moment, the next moment the other wolf might take over. It’s a powerful image because sometimes this does feel like a battle raging inside us, and it will be going on forever. But you know what? This is just a part of who we are. The evil wolf will always be there, but it doesn’t always have to win. Most days it seems like the best we can do is look that angry wolf calmly in the eyes and say, not today. Not right now. I’m going to do something different today.
Sometimes we may come to this place looking for clarity. Sometimes we come to God looking for easy answers. I’m sorry to tell you, we’re not always going to find them, because life is just not that simple. We are more complicated than easy answers. But what I can tell you – what I can promise – is that God has given us the strength to keep trying, keep looking, keep going. And that by God’s grace, each day is a new start. We don’t have to wait for the New Year to try something new, or to keep trying at the old things. Because in Christ we are a new creation, every moment of every day of every year.
And even the son of God once ran away from his parents.