(a sermon for January 3, 2021, the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, based on Luke 2:39-52)
“And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” That’s what Luke tells us in his gospel, but as far as I’m concerned it does absolutely nothing to satisfy my curiosity!
Actually, one of my great fascinations involving the gospel story has always been that of which we know very little: how Jesus, our Christ, grew from that tiny, helpless baby in the manger to a 30-year-old carpenter from Nazareth who came preaching salvation and the coming of God’s kingdom.
I wonder, for instance, if Jesus was ever a fussy baby. Was he colicky? What did he like to eat, and did he have a special toy or a “luvvy” (as our kids referred to it) that he clung to at night? What made him smile and laugh (was he ticklish?), and did Jesus work and play well with other children? Did Jesus go through “the terrible twos?” And I wonder… how did Mary and Joseph react when he misbehaved? Knowing what they did, could the two of them treat Jesus like any other child; would Joseph give him a “stern talking to,” or was there a little pat on the backside if he needed it? I mean, how do you discipline the Son of God? And while we’re on the subject, was Jesus at all rebellious as a teenager? Did Jesus really enjoy working alongside Joseph in the carpenter’s shop, or would he have rather been out with his friends?
Small questions, I know, and probably a bit impertinent; but I do wonder about such things, because in all honesty these are the questions that bring Jesus nearer to me and my life; for me, thinking about Jesus this way makes him human as well as divine, and I can wrap my mind and heart around that. And I take solace in knowing I’m not alone in my wondering: biblical scholars, to say nothing of novelists, poets and artists throughout the centuries have long speculated on this subject. In the end, however, all we have is speculation, because it turns out that we just don’t know all that much about Jesus’ childhood and youth.
In fact, one of the only stories we have about Jesus during this period is the one we just shared, regarding an incident that occurred when Jesus was about twelve years old, as he joined Mary and Joseph and a great caravan of other families from Nazareth on a trip to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.
Actually, that in and of itself tells us a great deal: that Jesus was raised in the rich Hebrew tradition of his family and community. You see, not only was it Jewish law that every male Israelite living within fifteen miles of Jerusalem attend the festival of Passover there, it was also customary (and a privilege) for young, growing boys to make their appearance there as part of their passage into adulthood. So, at age twelve, this was probably one of the first times that Jesus made the pilgrimage as required by law; and that’s significant for our understanding of who Jesus was, and the history and tradition of which he was a part.
But what’s even more significant about this story comes in what happened following the feast itself; for according to Luke, what we learn is that Mary and Joseph, in fact, lost Jesus! Now, to be fair, it was nobody’s fault, and anyone, especially parents, can understand how such a thing could have happened. You see, as regards these large caravans traveling to Jerusalem, the tradition of the time was for the women and children to start out on the journey earlier than the men; this was because the women and the children traveled more slowly. The men would start out later in the day, moving at a faster pace, so that by the end of the day, the men and women would meet at the place of encampment at more or less the same time.
This was also how, after the Passover celebration, they would make their way back to Nazareth. But what happened was that Mary assumed that Jesus, having nearly reached the age of manhood, was with Joseph; and Joseph, on the other hand, assumed that since Jesus was not around, that the boy was surely with his mother. It wasn’t until nightfall, when they’d set up camp for the night that Mary and Joseph realized, much to their horror, that Jesus was still back in Jerusalem! And so what else could they do but then turn around, leave the caravan, and go back by themselves a day’s journey to Jerusalem to find Jesus!
See, it was an honest mistake! Mary and Joseph were not lax in their parental duties, nor were they neglectful of their son; but the fact remains that quite without their knowledge, they had lost Jesus and had gone on for quite some time without even realizing it!
If you think about it, it’s actually quite a parable. Here were Mary and Joseph, these two young people who’d brought this child into the world in a cold, dark stable; who’d willingly become refugees so to protect him from the murderous rage of King Herod; who’d let their lives become completely altered for the sake of God’s own son. We look at Mary and Joseph and cannot help but marvel at their love and devotion to Jesus and yet, they still lost him! And here’s where it becomes a parable; because, friends, if it’s possible for Mary and Joseph to lose Jesus, however unintentionally, then it’s also possible for you and me to lose him as well!
Truth is, it happens all too easily: we’re walking what we’re thinking is the sure and certain pace of the Christian walk; we’re moving along on what feels like a good and spiritual pathway for our lives, and suddenly we look up to notice that Jesus just doesn’t seem to be there! That’s the irony of it, friends: we can be good, loving, faithful Christian people in just about every sense of the word; going to church regularly, involving ourselves in the church’s ministries, as well as doing good things out in the places where we dwell. We’ll give of ourselves spiritually, physically, financially and otherwise, and do it all with love and as an act of praise and devotion… and yet we still somehow manage to have lost Christ somewhere along the way!
How it happens is hard to say – no doubt at one point Jesus had been there at the center of it – but now, even amidst all the so-called “religious” activity, there’s a palpable sense of emptiness. Perhaps the meaning and purpose of what we were doing got overshadowed by the work of it, that is, our need to “get the job done,” so it had become less about our “faith response” than it was dealing with another obligation in our lives; or maybe it’s simply that we stopped paying attention to the movement of God’s Spirit in our lives, to the point where now, where a “Christian life” is concerned, we’re just going through the motions!
However it happens, the fact is that it can and does; and therein lay the question for each of us as we look around at our lives and living; and reflect on how this gift of divine love we’ve been given defines us, and how we live: Is Jesus there? And if not, then where is he? Can it be said of us that we, in fact, have lost Christ?
Of course, our story this morning has a happy ending: Mary and Joseph find Jesus in the temple, talking with and asking questions of the teachers there regarding matters of law, tradition and theology. In fact, we’re told that “all who heard [Jesus] were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” All very well and good – wonderful, in fact – but as you can imagine, his parents are still pretty upset, and understandably so! Mary says to her son, “Child,” (notice that suddenly it’s “child!”) “why have you treated us like this?” Didn’t you know that we’d be worried? We’ve been looking for you all day, we had to come all the way back here to find you… what have you got to say for yourself, young man?
And to this, Jesus very calmly replies, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Luke goes on to say that “they did not understand what he said to them,” but Biblical scholars and theologians make the case that Jesus, even then, knew who he was. But even more than this, I think that Jesus knew where to go. Even at the age of twelve, Jesus understood that a life of faith is a life of seeking; always seeking, always asking questions, always wanting to know bit more than you knew before. It’s about growing, in wisdom as well as in years… but growing ever and always in the company of God, there before you and beside you.
Friends, I ask you this morning, how can we really know God if we don’t take the time to be with God?
How can we live for Christ, if, in fact, we don’t seek to bring Christ near?
How can we know which way to walk on this Christian pilgrimage we’re on, if we don’t take the time to ask for directions in prayer? Or to pause along the journey to reflect both on where we’ve been, and where we’re going?
How can we call ourselves faithful when we won’t seek a deeper understanding of what that faith means? Or to put it another way, how can we know the answers if we don’t first ask the questions?
I think that even as a child, our Lord understood that though God actively seeks us out where we are, we need to seek God… and seeking God begins with an incredible life-long walk with Jesus! And if, along the way, we find that we’ve lost Jesus (or perhaps, more accurately, that we’ve misplaced him), the good news is that he can be found.
It oftentimes takes some rather intentional searching on our parts; it certainly requires getting out of our own way for a while, and by that I mean rearranging some of the priorities that may well have taken a stranglehold on our lives! It means asking questions: sometimes very hard questions, not only of ourselves but also of God; and then prayerfully, deliberately and intently listening to God for answers.
What we’re talking about here is spiritual discipline; but in such a discipline comes the remarkable discovery that not only have we found Jesus, but that all along Jesus has been waiting for us to find him! All along the journey, no matter in what direction we’ve veered off the pathway, the good news is that Christ has been waiting – patiently, lovingly and relentlessly – waiting for us to find him. Truly, this is the gift of every Christmas and the blessing of each and every New Year – most especially in this new year of 2021 – that even when we somehow manage to lose him, Jesus is ever and always there to be found!
It’s like that little phrase you’ll see printed on cards and signs and even t-shirts this time of year, usually with a picture of a manger, a star and perhaps a camel or two: Wise Men still seek him. Wise men, wise women, wise children: we would all do well to live our lives searching diligently for the child in the places where we dwell. Because I’ll guarantee you one thing: if we look, we’ll surely find the child who’s been waiting for us all along!
Dear friends, may you have a blessed and happy new year in the presence and blessing of Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.